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11 Facts About The Secret World of Alex Mack

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The Secret World of Alex Mack was secretly one of the longer running series in Nickelodeon history, logging 78 episodes over four seasons from 1994 to 1998. It only ended because its star wanted out (we'll get to that). The show centered around the titular Alex Mack, who was doused with a mysterious chemical that gave her powers like morphing into goo, turning others into goo, and things that had nothing to do with goo, like shooting out electricity from her fingertips. Her only confidants were her bestie Ray and book smart older sister Annie, as the decidedly evil company that manufactured the chemical was out to find the student they knew was hiding their darkest secrets. Here are 11 things you may not have known, or may have completely forgotten, about the show.

1. THREE HUNDRED GIRLS AUDITIONED FOR THE ROLE OF ALEX.

Alex Mack co-creator and producer Thomas W. Lynch told the Los Angeles Times in 1994 that he wasn't interested in a girl who "looked like she worked too much in television, had the kinds of reactions you always see, the smile, the look, the acting with eyes and all that kind of thing." He saw 300 girls for the role. What set Oleynik apart? "Larisa had such a great natural instinct," he said. "It was stunning. She made the character richer and more shaded."

2. ALEX MACK REPLACED A SNICK STAPLE.

Nickelodeon's iconic Saturday Night block launched on August 15, 1992, starting with Clarissa Explains It All's second season premiere, "Crush." Clarissa and crew would remain at the 8PM EST slot for the next two years, all the way until the end of its original run. When it came time to replace the show, Nick decided to stick with a series with a female protagonist, and on October 8, 1994, Alex Mack replaced Clarissa, starting a night of programming that included Space Cases, All That, and Are You Afraid of the Dark? In another two years, Alex Mack would run new episodes twice a week on Tuesday and Thursday, replaced on the SNICK lineup by Kenan & Kel.

3. JESSICA ALBA WAS AN ORIGINAL CAST MEMBER.

Alex Mack marked the television debut of actress Jessica Alba, who had made her film debut a little over a month earlier in Camp Nowhere. Alba would appear in the pilot and two other episodes of the first season as the snobby "Jessica," the girlfriend of Alex's crush Scott Greene. Jessica was designed to be hated: She wasn't just dating the likable main character's crush, but acted cruelly toward her, too. When Alba left to co-star on the television reboot of Flipper, Scott Greene got himself a new girlfriend, Kelly, who also antagonized Alex.

Only Alba's season of Alex Mack has currently been officially released on DVD; the cover has young Alba's face towards the upper left hand corner, touting the fact that it was her TV debut.

4. THERE WAS SOME CONTROVERSY.

In the pilot, when Alex reformed back into a human after turning into goo, she would no longer be wearing clothes. The writers quickly gave the character the power to keep her clothing on in subsequent episodes, both because there was a minor controversy over it, and because they likely noticed the embarrassment of then 12-year old star Larisa Oleynik. When asked about the naked morphing years later, Oleynik said, "I remember being mortified! I was just really embarrassed, being that I was 12 or 13 or whatever. I had this towel wrapped around me or something and was behind some boxes. I was so, so embarrassed. They did then end up changing that ... which was a good thing."

Another issue was raised upon the United Kingdom's release of the season 1 DVD in 2012, when it was suggested by the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) that anyone under 15 should not purchase a copy. The reason given was that in one scene a "child character" hides inside a tumble dryer, and the danger of doing such a thing is never addressed. The BBFC claimed that instead of cutting the scene, the distributor said they were fine with the rating because it was aimed for "an adult 'nostalgia' market" and not for children who wouldn't be familiar with the show anyway.

5. ALEX'S HATS WERE INSPIRED BY THE 1960s STYLE OF THE COSTUME DESIGNER'S FATHER

Lynch admitted in a 2012 story that it was costume designer Laura Slakey's idea to have Alex Mack wear hats. "She just threw this hat on and I was like, 'Wow, that's perfect,'" Lynch said. "The most iconic thing in the show, I had nothing to do with." Slakey was inspired by the way her father dressed in the 1960s; she imagined that Alex would dress differently since she didn't come across as a popular girl in the pilot script.

Initially, Nickelodeon didn't want the hats, but Lynch won that battle. Oleynik couldn't pick a favorite hat when asked years later, but she did bring up a lid she has never gotten out of her mind that the cast and crew referred to as the "condom cap."

6. THE STORY BEHIND THE NAME OF THE CHEMICAL IS HEARTBREAKING.

Along with fellow creator Ken Lipman, Lynch wrote the pilot script for the show. Lynch's father was a nuclear physicist who worked with radioactive materials that he kept in the garage, providing some basic inspiration. Lynch's childhood is also how he came up with GC-161, the name of the chemical that gave Alex Mack powers. While GC was derived from "DNA research," 161 came about from divorce. Lynch was eight when his parents divorced, and 1 + 6 + 1 equals 8.

7. THE BIG BAD WAS MR. BELDING'S WIFE.

Louan Gideon played Danielle Atron, the evil owner/CEO of the Paradise Valley Chemical Plant. Gideon, however, might be best known as Becky Belding, Mr. Belding's one and only, from Saved by the Bell. She appeared in an episode giving birth to Zack Belding, named after Zack Morris, who was stuck in an elevator with Becky when she was in labor. She also appeared in an episode of Saved by the Bell: The New Class and on Seinfeld.

8. THERE WERE ACCOMPANYING BOOKS.

Between 1995 and 1998, 34 books featuring Alex Mack and company were published concurrently with the TV show. Only the first and last books, which were novelizations of the first and last episodes, didn't have original stories. The books ranged in length from 130 to 180 pages, and most were written by Diana G. Gallagher, a veteran author of books based on TV shows.

9. THE SHOW WAS NEVER CANCELLED.

Larisa Oleynik was offered a fifth season, a feature Alex Mack film, and "a ton of money," according to Thomas Lynch, but Oleynik said she wanted to keep her character innocent, and that she was burnt out and wanted to finish high school. While that may be true, Larisa took on the role of Alissa Strudwick, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's girlfriend on 3rd Rock from the Sun, for 21 episodes soon after Alex Mack's end.

10. THE WRITING STAFF AND DIRECTORS WOULD GO ON TO BIGGER THINGS.

Matt Dearborn not only wrote seven episodes of The Secret World of Alex Mack, but directed three installments as well before creating the popular kids series Even Stevens. Vance DeGeneres—yes, Ellen's brother—wrote on the show before becoming an early Daily Show correspondent and writing for some Oscar telecasts. Writers Brian Hargrove and Jack Kenny would later co-create Titus. Neena Beber wrote the episode "False Alarms" before writing on Daria and penning the Mandy Moore movie How to Deal. Shawn Levy got his first TV show directing assignment on Alex Mack, eventually directing six episodes before helming Steve Martin's version of The Pink Panther, The Internship, Date Night, and all three of the Night at the Museum films.

11. THE AMBIGUOUS ENDING IS NO LONGER AMBIGUOUS.

In the final moments of the series finale, Annie checks up on Alex, who was just given an antidote by her scientist father that would rid her of all of her powers. Once Annie walks away, Alex pulls out the vial and smiles. Oleynik said that she played the scene not knowing if she takes the antidote or not: "You know, I never ... and I don't know what acting teachers would say about this, 'cause you're always supposed to have a choice ... but I never made that choice for myself when we were doing it. Just because I wasn't sure how I wanted the show to end in my mind." But Lynch revealed the answer in 2012. Spoiler alert: Alex Mack keeps her powers.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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