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Carsey-Werner Productions

14 Facts About A Different World

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Carsey-Werner Productions

A Different World premiered on NBC on September 24, 1987, as a showcase for The Cosby Show’s most popular daughter, Denise (Lisa Bonet). The show followed her day-to-day life at Hillman College. Bonet's departure at the end of the first season had no real negative impact on the show or its viewers; the ratings held steady, and some critics who had previously panned the show as “bland” or “uninspired” were now praising it as relevant and daring. Here are 14 things you might not know about the Emmy-nominated series, which ran for six seasons.

1. THE ORIGINAL PREMISE WAS COMPLETELY DIFFERENT.

In the very, very beginning, A Different World was envisioned as a show about a white girl’s experiences while attending a historically black college. Meg Ryan was originally cast in the lead as Maggie Lauten, but before the pilot she decided to step away from television and concentrate on films. So the setup changed and the series became about Denise adjusting to life away from her family, and the character of Maggie (now played by Marisa Tomei) had a smaller role as Denise’s roommate.

2. THE ORIGINAL PILOT WAS SCRAPPED AT THE LAST MINUTE.

After four episodes were filmed, neither the show's producers nor the network were pleased with the results.  So they brought former Saturday Night Live writer Anne Beatts on board as producer. Beatts, who had also created the short-lived high school sitcom Square Pegs, was charged with creating an entirely different pilot episode just six weeks before it was scheduled to air. The ratings for Season One were strong, but that was mainly due to A Different World’s plum time slot—sandwiched between The Cosby Show and Cheers. The reviews, on the other hand, were scathing, with “bland and unfunny,” “awful,” “calamitously drab,” and “a big yawn” among the ways in which it was described by critics.

3. LISA BONET'S PREGNANCY WAS SERENDIPITOUS.

Fate intervened before a decision had to be made about whether to axe Lisa Bonet when the newly married Mrs. Lenny Kravitz announced her pregnancy just after Season One wrapped, and the actress left the show. Bonet’s exit was followed by the departure of both Beatts and Tomei when Debbie Allen took over as producer. 

4. LISA BONET AND MARISA TOMEI REMAIN CLOSE FRIENDS.

Despite the relatively short time they worked together, it was long enough for Lisa Bonet and Marisa Tomei to form a close friendship. Tomei is godmother to all three of Bonet’s children, and was present at the birth of two of them. 

5. DEBBIE ALLEN AIMED FOR AUTHENTICITY.

Debbie Allen was a graduate of Howard University and aimed to make A Different World more realistically reflect the historically black college experience. Throughout her tenure on the show, Allen took the writing staff on an annual “field trip” to Spelman and Morehouse Colleges in Atlanta. There they not only saw the latest in dorm furnishings and college fashions, they also chatted with students and administrators to find out what issues were hot topics that could be used in future episodes. 

6. A DAVID BOWIE CONCERT INSPIRED DWAYNE WAYNE'S GLASSES.

Anne Beatts is the person to thank for Kadeem Hardison’s trademark flip-top sunglasses. She was looking for some sort of wardrobe accessory that would give math whiz Dwayne Wayne a slightly nerdy look to make him stand out from the other male characters. Inspiration struck when she went to see David Bowie in concert and spotted guitarist Carlos Alomar wearing a pair of what are now known as “Dwayne Wayne glasses.”

7. JASMINE GUY BORROWED HER THIRD GRADE TEACHER'S ACCENT FOR WHITLEY.

Jasmine Guy originally auditioned for the role of Jaleesa, which ultimately went to Dawnn Lewis. When Guy returned and tried out for Whitley, she wasn’t sure what a “Southern belle” was, so she used something that always got her laughs when she was a kid—she imitated the exaggerated accent of her third grade teacher, Mrs. Pinkard. 

8. WHITLEY GILBERT WAS BASED ON THE SHOW'S HEAD WRITER.

The character of the rich and spoiled (and often clueless) Whitley Gilbert was based on the real-life experiences of head writer Susan Fales-Hill. The daughter of a glamorous Haitian actress and wealthy Italian businessman, she had a privileged childhood full of household servants and private schools. In her memoir, Always Wear Joy, Fales-Hill recounted how, when she began her freshman year at Harvard, she struggled to fit in and was often shunned by other black students for “acting white.” 

9. THE SERIES HAD CONNECTIONS TO SPIKE LEE'S SCHOOL DAZE.

Three of the series’ principals—Jasmine Guy, Kadeem Hardison, and Darryl M. Bell—had previously worked together in the Spike Lee film School Daze. Years after A Different World had established itself as the seminal series about historically black college life, Lee expressed regret in a 2008 Vibe interview that he hadn’t thought of pitching the School Daze premise as a TV series. “I fell asleep on that one.” 

10. ROSEANNE BARR MADE AN IMPORTANT CAMEO.

Roseanne Barr and her then-husband Tom Arnold made an unusual uncredited cameo in A Different World, appearing as a pair of looters helping themselves to freebies at a high-end boutique during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. It was Debbie Allen’s idea to have the Roseanne stars, along with the handful of white suburban soccer moms, gleefully savage the merchandise racks. She wanted to show her audience what CNN didn’t: that people of all races participated in the post-Rodney King melee.

11. CREE SUMMER'S VOICE IS FAMILIAR.

Cree Summer (“Freddie Brooks”) did voiceover work before, during, and after her time on A Different World. She’s been the voice of the Green M&M for the past 20 years, and has also been a regular on dozens of animated series including Inspector Gadget, The Care Bears, As Told by Ginger, and Rugrats. In 1991 she had the opportunity to “morph” in Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” music video.

12. AN INTERRACIAL RELATIONSHIP SPARKED BACKLASH.

Charnele Brown was in her early 30s when she played 20-something pre-med student Kim Reese. According to an interview the actress gave to Sac Cultural Hub in 2014, she received a lot of angry mail after her character dated a Caucasian student. “The majority of the backlash came from men in prison,” she stated. “They wanted to know why NBC would pair ‘the only black girl on the show’ with a white boy.” Brown struggled with rejection for many years when auditioning for various television roles; she was continually told that her skin “type” (i.e. dark complexioned) was not in style.

13. COLONEL TAYLOR WAS MARRIED TO ARETHA FRANKLIN.

Dawnn Lewis not only played Jaleesa Vinson, she also co-wrote the series’ theme song. Jaleesa eloped with math professor Colonel Taylor and disappeared from the series with no explanation after Season Five. In reality, Lewis had accepted a starring role (and a hefty salary increase) on Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper. Speaking of the A Different World theme song: it was performed by Aretha Franklin from Season Two through Season Five. The Queen of Soul happened to be the ex-wife of Glynn Turman, who played Colonel Bradford Taylor. 

14. TEMPESTT BLEDSOE FOUND LOVE ON A DIFFERENT WORLD.

Tempestt Bledsoe made a guest appearance as Vanessa Huxtable on A Different World in 1989. Sparks didn’t fly immediately, but five years later she and Darryl M. Bell (who played Ron Johnson) started dating. They are still together today (“happily unmarried”).

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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© Nintendo
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Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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