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Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

8 Fascinating Fan Theories About Mad Men

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Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

When Mad Men made its television debut nearly eight years ago, its storyline seemed straightforward enough: When he’s not creating brilliant advertising campaigns for some of the country’s most successful corporations, a handsome Madison Avenue executive named Don Draper likes to smoke, drink, and cheat on his wife.

But as the series continued, cracks began to show in Don's perfectly chiseled exterior. Who is Dickie Whitman? And where is this house of ill repute in which he was raised? As such, Mad Men took on a much more mysterious tone, one that ultimately led devoted viewers to wonder whether the show had ever been straightforward at all. Or if it they had been hoodwinked, and Mad Men had been some sort of strange 1960s fever dream all along. And so began the onslaught of elaborate fan theories about the rabbit hole that Mad Men just might be (some of them crazy, others entirely plausible).

1. DON DRAPER IS D.B. COOPER.

Image Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

On November 24, 1971, a well-dressed man in his mid-forties walked up to the Northwest Orient Airlines ticket counter at Portland International Airport and purchased a one-way ticket to Seattle under the name Dan Cooper. Once on board, he made his way to a seat at the back of the plane, ordered a bourbon and soda, and lit a cigarette … then passed a note to the flight attendant, informing her that he had a bomb. His demands were simple: $200,000 in cash, four parachutes, and a fuel truck awaiting the plane upon its arrival in Seattle. Long story short: after being informed that his demands had been met, the plane landed, refueled, and took off again. Twenty minutes later, Cooper—who would become known as D.B. Cooper because of a simple media miscommunication—parachuted from the plane, ransom money in tow, never to be heard from again.

Could D.B. Cooper—infamous hijacker and all-around man of mystery—and Don Draper be one and the same? The physical description certainly sounds familiar. And considering Don’s association with Bert Cooper and the Sterling Cooper ad agency, the alias would certainly make sense. Which could very well be why this theory has gained so much traction, particularly with Lindsey Green at Medium, who wrote an in-depth breakdown of the reasoning behind the idea, noting that the ending has been hinted at since the very beginning. “There’s always been something in the air with Mad Men, quite literally,” writes Green. “From Mohawk to American, North American Aviation, and Ted’s own little two-seater, airlines and aviation are about as prevalent on the show as aliases and fake identities. Even when Joan was upset after being served divorce papers from Dr. Harris, it was a model airplane she grabbed and threw at the unassuming receptionist as Don stood in the doorway. Mad Men has been telling us how the story ends from the very beginning. It ends on an airplane.”

2. MEGAN DRAPER IS SHARON TATE.

Image Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

Of the many theories that have popped up surrounding possible plot lines, one that posits that aspiring actress Megan Draper is Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s version of Sharon Tate—and is destined to suffer the same fate—has gathered rampant attention. It all began when some eagle-eyed viewers noticed that in season six, Megan wore a T-shirt that was eerily similar to one worn by Tate. From there, additional “proof” began mounting, including a glimpse of Sally Draper reading Rosemary’s Baby, the book that Tate’s husband Roman Polanski adapted for the big-screen. When asked about the connection, Mad Men costume designer Janie Bryant swore to Yahoo! that the choice of outfit “wasn't about Sharon Tate. It was about Megan just being political. That T-shirt [features] the Vietnam star, and in past shows you know Megan has made reference to not really supporting the Vietnam War.” For his part, Weiner himself told HitFix: “The Sharon Tate thing, you know, it’s so flimsy and thin, and at the same time, I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of coincidence.’ I don’t know what to tell you. I would like to think that people would know that the show’s striving for historical accuracy that I would not add a person who was not murdered by the Manson family into that murder. So that in itself is the dumbest argument in the world for me.”

3. MEGAN DRAPER IS A GHOST.

Mad Men viewers sure do have a morbid fascination with Megan. Shortly after the show’s creators swore that the younger, shinier Mrs. Draper would not be murdered by Charles Manson, fan theorists took another shot at placing Megan in the afterlife: she's already dead! Mainly, this train of thought seems to have sprung from an episode in which Don nearly drowns at a pool party and, in that space between life and death, sees and is comforted by a hallucination of Megan. As Uproxx explains it: “The wording during [the pool party] sequence is very careful. During the hallucination, in addition to finding out that Megan is pregnant, Don asks, ‘How did you find me?’ Megan responds, ‘But I live here.’ The ‘here’ is not California; it can’t be the party. She’s clearly not actually there, but she could be in the afterlife. A few seconds later, Draper sees a dead Private Dinkins, who says, ‘I heard you were here.’ Again, ‘here’ is in the afterlife.”

4. FORGET MEGAN. IT’S BETTY WHO’S THE GONER.

Image Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

After all of the talk about Megan’s (assumed) imminent demise, Esquire posited a new theory in the summer of 2013: that if any of Don’s wives were going to kick the bucket, it would—and should—be Betty. “Think about it,” wrote Jen Chaney. “We already got to see Don and Betty together again this season, which seemed to bring closure to that relationship, for Betty at least. Betty is barely in the show these days, so losing that character makes sense from a narrative efficiency standpoint. If we agree that Don Draper's identity as Don Draper will likely cease to exist this season, it would make complete sense for Betty, the symbol of Don's old life as Don, to be gone.”

5. DON’S GOING TO DIE.

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Mortality has (obviously) always been a recurring theme in Mad Men. And as with any series that’s readying for its final episodes, viewers are anticipating some sort of finality with their finale. Being that Don Draper is the maddest of the titular Mad Men, his death is the only one that would be meaningful enough to really matter. Viewers have combed through hours of footage to point out bits of imagery that hint at Don’s ultimate demise (including the fact that he chose The Inferno as his Hawaiian beach read). But mostly, people reference a possible harbinger that’s been in front of their faces all along: the series’ iconic opening credits, which feature a faceless man falling out of a window.

6. PETE CAMPBELL WILL FALL OUT OF THAT WINDOW.

Image Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

Oh, Pete Campbell. Smug, smarmy Pete Campbell. While plenty of viewers have probably gleefully envisioned an episode in which the whiny, overprivileged up-and-comer who everyone loves to hate says bye-bye to the world, Salon dedicated more than 2400 words to the topic in 2012. “Pete Campbell will take a header out a Time & Life Building window, probably around Thanksgiving on the show. (I’m iffy on the when but feeling solid on the who, what, and where),” declared writer Robin Sayers. “I can argue that I came to this conclusion logically, because I was a sociology of media major in college, focused on film and TV theory and I did intern as a script analyst for the late, great Alan J. Pakula (All the President’s Men, Sophie’s Choice, Klute). Plus, I worked in the T&L Building for nearly a decade, so I know that, indeed, its windows can in fact be ‘opened’ … And now I can only see poor Vincent Kartheiser dropping on that stark poster heralding Season 5, even though the cut of that guy’s jib is more Draper than Dyckman.” Okay, so the details on this one are admittedly dated—but it could still happen. Right?

7. DON IS JEWISH.

This one isn’t so much a fan theory as it is one fan’s theory. In discussing the many hypotheses viewers have put forth, Weiner admitted that he kind of enjoys it. “I have no complaint,” Weiner told HitFix in January. “I don’t care how it’s being watched. I mean, I hate the screen within a screen within a screen watching, but I love that people watch the show.” He then recounted one strange encounter with a fan: “You get in this weird situation the first season where people were like, ‘I know Don Draper’s secret. He’s Jewish.’ And I was like, ‘Did I ever put anything in there that said he wasn’t?’ Because he’s not. I mean, I know that.”

8. IT’S ALL LEADING UP TO MAD WOMEN.

Image Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

Don Draper may be the star of Mad Men, but neither he nor his business ventures would have been as successful if it weren’t for the women behind the men—namely, Peggy Olson and Joan Harris. Throughout the series’ seven seasons, we’ve seen each of their characters grow, both in their personal lives and their professional positions. Maybe it’s time they strike out on their own?

In The Hollywood Reporter’s recent oral history of Mad Men, Lionsgate COO Sandra Stern recounted that “when we first started negotiating with AMC, one of the things they wanted was a spinoff. We talked about doing a contemporary one. Given the fact that [Mad Men] ends nearly 50 years ago, most of the characters would be dead. Sally was the one character young enough that you could see her 30 or 40 years later. There was a time we wanted a Peggy spin­off, too, and, a la Better Call Saul, a minor character going off to L.A. Matt wasn't comfortable committing to a spinoff.” Which doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t happen. Even if Christina Hendricks, a.k.a. Joan, hasn’t heard anything about it yet.

Earlier this week, the Huffington Post asked Hendricks about the rumors of a Peggy and Joan spinoff. “You're the first I'm hearing it from. It hasn't reached my ears yet,” she replied. Then added: “That would be amazing. If they wanted me, I'd be there.” (Are you listening, Matthew Weiner?)

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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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