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Double Dare via Facebook

The 10 Slimiest Stunts of Double Dare

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Double Dare via Facebook

Cats and babies. According to Byron Taylor, the art director who spent seven years involved in the creation of the slippery, weirdly ingenious obstacles that populated Nickelodeon’s Double Dare, those were virtually the only themes considered off limits.

“The lawyers had what they called an attractive nuisance,” he says. “That’s when a kid might see something on TV and then try to imitate it at home. We had a game where we tossed plush cats into these big clown pants, and another where we threw pudding at a doll. You couldn’t do either one. They were afraid kids would pick cats up by their tail and swing them around or throw food at real babies.”

Over the course of roughly 500 episodes of the 1986-93 original series and its many spin-offs, the crew got to do pretty much everything else involving replica mucus. “That period of time was sort of a transition," he says. "Now it’s commonplace to have all kinds of fart jokes. The level of taste has gone down in the last 30 years. I guess we were part of that.”

Affectionately known as the "Glopmaster" on set, Taylor was kind enough to take us through some of the show’s most innovative (and disgusting) courses.

1. THE ONE TON HUMAN HAMSTER WHEEL

After graduating from New York University in 1985, Taylor got a call from Jim Fenhagen, a friend he met at local print shop who had just designed the stage for a new game show and needed help. Shortly, Fenhagen was off to ABC News; Taylor was playing in baked beans at a PBS station in Philadelphia. Among the stunts already sketched out: the human hamster wheel. “I think they had hired a writer in Los Angles who had worked on Beat the Clock to come up with some of them,” Taylor says. “It was solid, but what we learned was, you couldn’t get any traction on the drum coming off a gooey obstacle—not if your feet were covered in eggs and flour. We eventually had to add grip tape inside so that kids had a chance of getting this thing going.”

The Wheel was among the obstacles that cost several thousand dollars to fabricate, forcing the production to sprinkle in more economical courses to stay within budget: “It’s cheap to have someone run through tires filled with cake mix.”

2. PICK IT

The giant, snot-filled nose is reviled in Double Dare fandom not for its questionable taste but for the way it slowed the game down. “Once you stuff pudding up the nose and shove a flag in there, you cannot tell the difference between the vinyl flag material and goop, Taylor says. It would stick to the nostril. People were scraping, pulling, and grabbing. We eventually had to add an air cannon to just blow it out.” The nose seemed to grow more obscene with each passing season, going from relatively clean to encrusted in green phlegm even before contestants got to it. “I think we once added a zit filled with vanilla pudding, Taylor says. That was bizarre.”    

3. KID FARM

Taylor says the idea for this kid-sized habitat came from David Letterman. “If you remember his old late night show, he had an ant farm for dogs. My thought was, ‘Let’s do one scaled big enough to put a kid through.’ We did it without any approval from the ant farm people, but I think we later gave some of those away as prizes.” According to Mathew Klickstein’s book, Slimed! An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age, one adult employee tried it out and got stuck. Wouldn’t surprise me, Taylor says. It was meant for 80-pound kids.”

4. SODA JERK

Double Dare was fond of super-sizing mechanical objects, including a typewriter, personal computer, and a mailbox. “I’m not sure kids would even know what a soda fountain looks like today,” Taylor says. “And some kids then didn’t know what a foot-activated pedal was.” You had to step on the right one to release two gallons of soda and a flag. “The bucket was essentially toilet apparatus," Taylor says. "When the pedal was hit, the flap would open. Getting the right amount of liquid was a problem.” Is Taylor surprised the show never worked in a gigantic toilet? “I can’t remember being told, ‘No toilets.’ We probably stayed away because it fell in the category of an attractive nuisance.”

5. THE WRINGER

Built in homage to the clunky (and dangerous) clothes wringers of the early 20th century, Taylor says the device was a cautionary tale when it came to using absorbent, open-celled foam. “We were just improvising and got some cheap mattress-type foam, he says. We didn’t know how to upholster something so it was airtight, and this thing just became like a big, soppy, stinking sponge you’d carry around. No matter how powerful an industrial cleaner you used, it would rot and smell.”

6. THE SUNDAE SLIDE

If Double Dare’s appeal needs to be condensed into one idea, it’s that it's the one place kids are rewarded for playing with their food. A fixture of the show, the Slide deposited players right into a six-foot diameter sundae. The piece was actually made of playground equipment modified so it could sit on a weighted base instead of being bolted to the ground. (All of the courses needed to be mobile.) “It was a signature piece," Taylor says. "We had to use a non-dairy whipped topping called Baker’s Cream because the real stuff would just melt under the lights. Over time, we developed a kitchen where we’d whip up gallons of the stuff. We had to find an 80-quart mixer."

7. SANDWICHES, WAFFLES, AND OTHER OVERSIZED FOODSTUFFS 

Marinating latex foam props in condiments always made for an excellent visual, but the show learned early on to make them with colored pudding: Actual mustard and ketchup hurts. “On the first episode, we used the real stuff, and if you get it on your hands and feet and then touch your eye, it’s painful without eye protection," Taylor says. "We learned that very quickly.” Some “breads” would be too big to drag out and hose down. If they got a hole where food could enter, it could proceed to sit and stew until the following season. “It’s not a problem over three weeks," Taylor says, "but if you stick it in a hot warehouse for six months, it will smell. Yes.”

8. GUM DROP

Marc Summers’ favorite obstacle, and possibly the most visually interesting of the lot: Kids would leap into a vertical ball bit and come tumbling out of the bottom. “We’d come up with ideas just riding the train into the Philadelphia studio from New York,” Taylor says. “After so many years, it’s like, what else can we do?” The drawback was the door, which had to be opened by a stagehand with a switch. “Early on, we learned a kid could hit his head riding the balls down and smacking into the door, so we padded it,” Taylor says.

The balls came from a local outdoor amusement park that let the show scoop up their inventory during the winter months, and, says Taylor, “they would be covered in snow and ice. We’d have to thaw them out. Eventually, we realized the name and number of the company was printed on every one. So once someone looked at the ball, we called and ordered them directly.”

9. DOWN THE HATCH

Possibly the only obstacle designed after a celebrity, this slime-caked maw was inspired by an illustration of Diana Ross. “What happened was, I saw a caricature of her and just copied it as closely as I could,” Taylor says. Eventually, the teeth began to suffer from rot: “The bodies were rubbing all over the teeth and they just started to come apart. We did this, the nose, a foot. We went through as many body parts as we could put on air.”

10. FANCY FOOTWORK

A common image in clown-themed nightmares, the shoes tried to stomp contestants as they crawled across the platform. “That was incredibly complicated to do," Taylor says. "It was basically a blatant rip-off of old Rube Goldberg cartoons. The shoes were on pistons, so the rods could get bent by kids and then not retract.” Over time, toilet paper and gum began to appear on their bottoms. That level of repulsive detail was usually up to producers or stagehands—and occasionally Summers himself. "Obviously," one parent wrote in, "you cannot eat and watch Double Dare at the same time." 

All images courtesy of Nickelodeon.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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