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Top Ten Facts About The Late Show With David Letterman's Early Days

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After 30-plus years on late night television, it's funny to think that David Letterman started in an untested time slot with a show that essentially amounted to an experiment. Starting from that very first show on February 1, 1982, NBC's Late Night wound up defining much of the modern comedy landscape. Brian Abrams' e-book AND NOW...An Oral History of "Late Night with David Letterman" tells the story of those early days from the men and women who made them happen. Here are ten highlights.

1. The "Top Ten" List Started As a Cosmo Spoof...Or a Daily News Spoof...Or a People Spoof...

The origin of The "Top Ten" List has its own little Rashomon narrative. "If you Google this, you’ll find that I get credit," says writer Randy Cohen, "But it’s more complicated than that...One of these mornings, I had come in and talked about this thing I had seen in Cosmo. It was the 'Ten Sexiest Men Over Sixty,' and I thought this was hysterical...As I recall, it was [Producer] Bob Morton who said, 'Oh, we should do something like that on the show.'”

However, as Late Night writer Steve O'Donnell recalls, "I had seen a list of eligible bachelors. I don’t think it was in Cosmopolitan. That’s too cheesy. I think it was in the Daily News. And there were 10 bachelors, including [Bill] Paley, the CBS chairman who at that time was 84 years old. That amused me... I suggested doing it on a daily basis."

Meanwhile, producer Bob Morton has a different version: "There’s always been disputed credit as to who created the 'Top Ten' list. I had a copy of People Magazine, and I think they had done the 'Top Ten Sexiest Bachelors.' It was John Kennedy, Jr. or somebody. And I said to Steve, 'You know, we should do our own 10 best lists.'”

2. The First "Top Ten" List Was About Peas

"The first one we did," says Steve O'Donnell, "was one suggested by Kevin Curran, which was 'Top Ten Words That Almost Rhyme With Peas.' Whatever it was, you can at least see that the first lists were not a bunch of jokes about John Boehner and Harry Reid. They were supposed to be conceptual, this weird mixture." Here it is, from September 18, 1985:

The next nine were "Top Ten Heaviest Kennedys," "Top Ten Baseball Players with Funny Names," "Top Ten Furniture Favorites," "Top Ten Liquids," "Top Ten Cartoon Squirrels," "Top Ten Wiper Blades," "Top Ten Commercial Processes," and "Top Ten Pharaohs or Tile Caulkings."

3. Larry "Bud" Melman (Calvert DeForest) Was Discovered In a Student Film

Larry "Bud" Melman, portrayed by the sui generis Calvert DeForest, was probably the most beloved character in the history of Late Night. He would be given ridiculous field tasks to do or scenes to read, all of which inevitably went wrong. That DeForest even wound up on the show in the first place was a matter of chance.

Season one writers Stephen Winer and Karl Tiedemann had submitted a student film when trying out for the gig. "When we were doing [the student film], Calvert DeForest came at an open audition. There was nothing for him in the movie except background, but there was something about him that made us believe we could use this guy forever," Winer says. "When we had the job interview with Dave and [Co-creator] Merrill [Markoe], they were very complimentary of the film. During the course of that meeting, Merrill said, 'We’re looking for somebody like that little guy in your movie for the show.' And I said, 'That’s the guy you’re looking for. Trust me.'"

Larry "Bud" Melman wound up being a regular from the very beginning—he read the cold open of Late Night's first episode.

4. Calvert DeForest Kept His Day Job

According to Steve O'Donnell, "For the first three years of the show, Larry 'Bud' Melman had a day job at a methadone clinic as a receptionist. Finally, we just hired him full-time."

5. Bill Murray Was the Show's First Guest—And He Went Missing

Nerves were obviously bundled for Late Night's premier on February 1, 1982. The first guest, Bill Murray, didn't help calm everyone down. When it was time to start filming, he had completely disappeared. "We couldn’t find him," recalls Late Night talent coordinator Sandra Furton. "We basically put out an internal APB. Everyone looked in all the doorways, looked through all the rooms. The show was starting, and we found out that he had left the building. He came in through the 6th Avenue entrance—it was a building he was familiar with because of Saturday Night Live—and [talent coordinator] Cathy [Vasapoli] and I asked, 'Where have you been?' And he said, 'I had to go home and feed my cat.'"

6. Chris Elliot Started As An NBC Page

Writer and show regular Chris Elliott wasn't plucked from the Harvard Lampoon or SNL—he had his humble beginings as an NBC page. "He amused Letterman by giving him a tour of 30 Rock when Letterman was just setting up," says Steve O'Donnell. Letterman then hired him to be a talent booker. "Elliott’s job initially was to book the pet tricks—not to be a writer or be funny." He was eventually promoted.

7. During the Early Days, People Had to be Pulled Off the Street to Fill the Audience

Writer Max Pross recalls, "We were still dragging in people from the street to sit in the audience." Writers were given tickets to hand out. "The Ford Modeling Agency was down the street," says writer Tom Gammill, "and you could go there and give them to the models. After a while, they stopped giving the writers tickets to give to people."

8. Dave Started Throwing Pencils Through The Window Because Of Viewer Mail

Stephen Winer takes credit for this one: "One day there was a piece of 'Viewer Mail' that asked if the glass in the windows behind Dave was real. So I tried to find another level to it. So he just threw a pencil through the window. As I expected, it didn’t get a huge laugh, but he did it twice more that night and three times the next day. And he’d been doing it ever since."

9. Crispin Glover's Bizarre Appearance Was A Failed Joke

On July 28, 1987, Crispin Glover appeared in what was one of the most notorious interviews in Late Night history. Sandra Furton recalls, "We did the pre-interview with him over the phone, and, OK, he’s a bit odd-looking but you didn’t expect him to behave so erratically when he went out on stage. But he did. He wasn’t answering any of the pre-interview questions and went off on this whole tirade...And then he ended up doing that karate kick. It’s really one of the first times that David cut to break and didn’t even say goodbye. We just escorted [Glover] off of the set.'"

While rumors spread that Glover had been on drugs or was experiencing a psychotic episode, the real explanation is far more benign. As he was being escorted out, Furton says he was apologetic, telling her, “Oh, sorry, I was just trying to do something funny.” Turns out he appeared "in character" (without telling anyone beforehand).

10. Conan O'Brien Was Turned Down For a Writer's Job

As Steve O'Donnell tells it: "It came down to hiring one of two writers in contention: a guy named Boyd Hale from Oklahoma or a guy [from the Harvard Lampoon] named Conan O’Brien. Letterman was like “Ah, geez, we’ve got so many Lampoon guys. They’re both funny. They’re both great.” There was a recommendation for both. The Oklahoma guy showed a lot of verve and determination, including making a tape at the time, which was harder then than it is now. So we passed on Conan."

Conan eventually landed a job on Late Night, albeit one with a higher profile.

For more Letterman history, go get Brian Abrams' e-book AND NOW...An Oral History of "Late Night with David Letterman".

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

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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