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15 Things You Gotta Love About Dinosaurs

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The ABC primetime lineup back in 1991 was all about the sitcoms. Families gathered in front of their televisions to eat TV dinners and watch Roseanne, Family Matters, Full House, Step by Step, and a brand new series from the guy who gave us The Muppets and whatever Ludo from Labyrinth (1986) is supposed to be.

Jim Henson wanted to make a sitcom that followed the basic formula, with the twist that the family would be dinosaurs, that they would live a very unsustainable lifestyle, and the whole thing would be made using puppets and animatronics. In celebration of what would have been Jim Henson's 79th birthday, here are 15 cool things you've gotta love about Dinosaurs.

1. THE SERIES WAS PARTIALLY INSPIRED BY A CHOW MEIN COMMERCIAL.

In a DVD special feature segment titled Pre-Hysterical Times: The Making of Dinosaurs, Jim Henson’s son, Brian, says that his father’s early work for La Choy brand Chinese food planted the seed for a show about walking, talking dinosaurs. “The La Choy dragon just wrecked everything, and I think my dad always thought that was a hilarious character. I think maybe [Dinosaurs] had the roots in that.”

2. NO ONE HAD EVER ATTEMPTED TO MAKE A SHOW LIKE DINOSAURS.

Taking inspiration from dysfunctional TV families of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s (The Honeymooners, All in the Family), Henson wanted to make something that audiences had never seen before. “The whole thing is about a family and a civilization that’s doomed,” said producer Pete Coogan in the book No Strings Attached: The Inside Story of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. “No one had ever undertaken a network primetime sitcom show that was purely animatronic.”

3. THE PRODUCERS BORROWED MANY MEMBERS OF THE SESAME STREET TEAM.

Independent Lens, YouTube

Brian Henson hired the best puppeteers in the business to perform in Dinosaurs and to operate what they called the Performance Control System. Among the all-stars to join the team were Kermit the Frog and Ernie performer Steve Whitmire, Gonzo performer Dave Goelz, and Kevin Clash, who voiced and performed Elmo, Splinter from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), and Baby Sinclair.

4. JIM HENSON NEVER GOT TO SEE A SINGLE EPISODE.

Sadly, Henson passed away in 1990, a year before the sitcom went into production and premiered on ABC. Before his death, the master puppeteer worked with designer Kirk Thatcher to develop the characters and the general ideas for the show. The political themes and more fleshed out sitcom elements came later with the help of co-creators Bob Young and Michael Jacobs, and Brian Henson made sure that the final product was something that would make his father proud.

5. BABY SINCLAIR'S CATCHPHRASES CAME FROM AN ACTUAL BABY.

While developing the personalities for each of the characters, co-creator and writer Bob Young used his third son for inspiration. “Not the mama” and “I’m the baby, gotta love me” became the most popular quotes from the series and were printed on T-shirts, buttons, and other merchandise.

6. THERE WAS A MUSIC VIDEO FOR "I'M THE BABY (GOTTA LOVE ME)."

The catchphrase was a big hit for the show, so a song was created for their Big Songs (1992) soundtrack, and a MTV-style video was produced and incorporated into the final episode of season three. The song was written by the voice actor for Earl Sinclair (Stuart Pankin) and film and television composer Ray Colcord provided the music.

7. EACH FAMILY IN THE SHOW IS NAMED AFTER AN OIL COMPANY.
 

eileenmak, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

As a joke that references the (false) idea that oil reserves come from dead dinosaurs, the prehistoric surnames in the show were taken from petroleum companies. The Sinclairs are named after the Sinclair Oil Corporation; Earl’s boss (B.P. Richfield) is a combination of B.P. (British Petroleum) and the Richfield Oil Corporation; Roy Hess references the Hess Corporation; and grandma Ethyl is named after a fuel additive company.

8. THE SINCLAIR FAMILY WAS BIOLOGICALLY IMPOSSIBLE.

Earl Sinclair is a megalosaurus, his wife Fran is an allosaurus, and the children are all completely made-up species for the sake of the show. The maternal grandmother, Ethyl, was originally a pterodactyl that was supposed to hang in a closet, according to designer Kirk Thatcher. During development, Ethyl became more of a core character, so she evolved into the seated matriarch that we know and love.

9. EACH 23-MINUTE EPISODE TOOK 170 TIMES LONGER TO MAKE.

In 1994, Creature Shop creative supervisor David Barrington Holt told the Chicago Tribune that each episode of Dinosaurs took approximately 65 hours to produce, and at its peak, there were 90 people working on the set to meet its deadlines. “We would work pretty long hours. We'd start at 5 a.m. and last until 2 or 3 a.m. We pretty well worked around the clock. The shooting side of things can get pretty intense. At night we'd make repairs and then get ready for the next day.”

10. NO PRESS WAS ALLOWED ON SET DURING PRODUCTION OF THE FIRST SEASON.

No one got to peek behind the curtain of Jim Henson's Creature Shop while the show's first season was being made because co-creator Michael Jacobs and the rest of the crew didn’t want to spoil the magic. “We said all along that for the first season we would have no press on the set, because we did not want to blow the integrity of the show for kids,” he told the Los Angeles Times. "I didn't want the press around because the angle would have been to take pictures of these creatures with their heads off. It's like ALF: Do you want to see pictures of ALF or somebody's hand up ALF? I wasn't going to have it. It's the kids who come first, and I didn't want to blow the fantasy for kids."

11. EPISODES WERE RELEASED ON VHS TO HELP PAY FOR THE SHOW.

VideoObscura, Etsy

Because Dinosaurs was one of the most ambitious projects on television, the cost to produce the show was very high. The first six episodes were released on home video ahead of schedule in December of 1991. “We never dreamed the show would be as expensive as it is,” said Jacobs at the time. “The videocassette release is very early, based on getting some of the money defrayed.” The characters were also used as promotional tools at Walt Disney World in Orlando and at Disney-MGM Studios.

12. IT ONLY TOOK 10 WEEKS FOR THE CREATURE SHOP TEAM TO BRING THE CHARACTERS TO LIFE.

Creature Shop supervisor John Stephenson was given a very short window to build the first 10 characters for the show and somehow made it happen. “Of course it wasn’t possible, but we did the best we could,” said Stephenson in No Strings Attached. “We got them to Los Angeles, sent an enormous service crew over with them and David Barrington-Holt in charge. We started shooting them then, building and rebuilding them, and eventually made them perfect.”

13. EARL SINCLAIR'S CONSTANT SIGHING ACTUALLY SERVED A PURPOSE.

Throughout the show, the tortured soul that is Earl Sinclair is more often than not frowning and sighing heavily. Part of it is the nature of the character, but Bill Barretta, the performer inside the suit, revealed in a behind-the-scenes featurette that he needed to open Earl’s mouth constantly because it was the only way he could see where he was going. The head of the costume sat above Barretta’s own head and did not have eye holes, so he looked through the mouth while the character was talking or let out a sigh when he needed to maneuver around furniture.

14. DINOSAURS BIRTHED THE L.A. CREATURE SHOP.

According to Brian Henson in No Strings Attached, when the show wasn’t renewed after the fourth season, the 35 people who worked on the show did not want to leave L.A. and head back to the Creature Shop’s base in London. “The crew were saying that they didn’t want to leave. In the end, we decided we’d have a core of six to eight people there all the time and have a full crew on a project-to-project basis.” The L.A. shop worked primarily on TV commercials in the early years while the London shop continued to do big productions, and then Steven Spielberg hired them to help make a little dinosaur movie called Jurassic Park (1993).

15. GEORGE MILLER PRODUCED BABE AFTER A VISIT TO THE DINOSAURS SET.

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The guy who made the Mad Max series worked with the Creature Shop to bring a talking pig to the silver screen, but that might never have happened if it wasn’t for Dinosaurs. Miller bought the rights to a book called The Sheep-Pig in the mid-1980s and wanted to make a live-action version of it because he saw the potential of computer graphics and animatronics. Miller was waiting for his dream to become cheaper to produce, and when his co-producer Bill Miller and director Chris Noonan saw what was happening with the sitcom, Miller decided to move forward with Babe.

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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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