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15 Behind-the-Scenes Facts About Taxi

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Unlike many sitcoms of its era, Taxi focused on a group of blue-collar workers who, despite having aspirations of bigger and better careers, were never really destined to be anything other than what they were: cab drivers. The series won 18 Emmy Awards during its five-year run and will always be remembered not only for its clever writing but also for some truly quirky characters and sometimes bittersweet plotlines.

1. THE SERIES WAS INSPIRED BY A MAGAZINE ARTICLE.

When The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended its successful seven-season run, co-creator James L. Brooks formed a new production company, the John Charles Walters Company, with David Davis, Ed. Weinberger, and Stan Daniels, all writer/producers whom he had worked with on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Brooks got the idea to create an ensemble show set at a New York cab company after reading “Night Shifting for the Hip Fleet,” an article about a Greenwich Village taxi garage that ran in New York magazine in 1975.

2. TONY DANZA WAS "DISCOVERED" IN THE BOXING RING.

In the mid-1970s “Tough” Tony Danza was a professional boxer who trained at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. Gleason’s was home to many famous fighters, and the go-to place for filmmakers and authors who were researching the sport. That was how producers Larry Gordon and Joel Silver happened to be ringside one night when Danza knocked out Billy Perez and they invited him to audition for Walter Hill's The Warriors, which they were producing. He was just about ready to ink a deal with them, too, when James L. Brooks called and asked him to read for the part of a boxer on his upcoming sitcom, Taxi.

3. "TONY BANTA" STARTED OUT AS "PHIL RYAN."

The original character Brooks had in mind was an Irish heavyweight named Phil Ryan, but he liked Danza’s audition enough to tailor the part to suit him. So Phil Ryan became Phil Banta, an Italian middleweight. Danza was impressed when three days into rehearsal he got the news that his character’s name had been changed to “Tony” Banta. “They must really like me,” he beamed at the time. That little ego boost didn’t last long; producer Ed. Weinberger revealed to Danza that they’d changed the name because they had a feeling that he wouldn’t remember to answer to “Phil.”

4. THE PRODUCERS WANTED JUDD HIRSCH, BUT HIRSCH DIDN'T WANT A SERIES.

Judd Hirsch was primarily a stage actor who had done a few films. In 1977 he guest starred on two episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show spin-off Rhoda, and decided that he didn’t enjoy working on television. His agent contacted him shortly after his appearance, however, and informed him that the Taxi producers really wanted him for the role of Alex Reiger on their new show.

Hirsch read the pilot script and worried that the show would probably last at least three seasons and he didn’t want to be committed that long; he wanted to be free to do plays and perhaps films. He instructed his agent to make the producers an offer they wouldn’t accept ... but to his surprise, they accepted it! They also put his name over the title of the show, which surprised him and also worried him that it would cause resentment from his castmates on the set.

5. MANDY PATINKIN AUDITIONED FOR THE ROLE OF ALEX.

While Judd Hirsch was still undecided, Broadway and film star Mandy Patinkin was a contender for the role of Alex Rieger; in fact, when Tony Danza auditioned, he read with Patinkin, not Hirsch. Patinkin later showed up in a memorable guest spot in the episode “Memories of Cab 804."

6. DANNY DEVITO TRASH-TALKED HIS WAY INTO THE ROLE OF LOUIE DE PALMA.

When casting director Joel Thurm asked Danny DeVito to audition for Taxi, both Michael Douglas and Jack Nicholson warned DeVito against doing television because “it uses you up.” “Sure, they could say that, they were big rich movie stars,” DeVito later recalled during an interview for the Archive of American Television. But DeVito loved the Taxi pilot script and decided to go into full “Louie” mode for his audition.

DeVito walked into the conference room where Brooks, Weinberger, Daniels, and Davis were sitting, waiting expectantly. He took one step then threw the script onto the coffee table and bellowed, “One thing I wanna know before we start—who wrote this sh**?!” Luckily his outrageousness paid off; the producers not only laughed at his opening gambit, they proceeded to guffaw at his every remark that followed.

7. BOBBY WHEELER WAS SUPPOSED TO BE BLACK.

The character of aspiring actor Bobby Wheeler was originally envisioned with an African-American playing the role. Blazing Saddles’ Cleavon Little was in serious contention for the part, and it eventually came down to him and Jeff Conaway. Conaway had a foot in the door with the production team by way of a guest appearance on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. (He’d also recently co-starred in the film Grease, though it hadn’t yet been released.) The series creators had Conaway in mind for the role of naive John Burns, but Conaway thought he was better suited for the Bobby character and campaigned for the part. He was eventually given a reading with Judd Hirsch which ultimately won him the role.

8. ANDY KAUFMAN'S CONTRACT ONLY REQUIRED HIM TO WORK TWO DAYS PER WEEK.

Taxi’s producers were fans of Andy Kaufman’s stand-up comedy and were anxious to have his “Foreign Man” character (renamed Latka Gravis for the series) on the show. Kaufman wasn’t anxious to work the long hours required for a series, so concessions were made. He only came to the studio on Tuesdays for the run-through and Fridays for the actual taping. A stand-in for Latka was used during rehearsals for the rest of the week. Even with such a light work schedule, Kaufman was still frequently late, holding up production and irritating some of his co-stars.

9. KAUFMAN'S CONTRACT STIPULATED THAT HIS ALTER EGO, TONY CLIFTON, BE GIVEN A SEPARATE CONTRACT.

Tony Clifton was another of Kaufman’s characters, a sleazy, obnoxious Vegas lounge-lizard. Kaufman insisted not only that Tony Clifton be written into several Taxi episodes, he also insisted that Clifton be treated as a separate and unique entity, with his own contract, dressing room, and parking spot. Kaufman also required that all the staff and actors address him as “Tony,” never “Andy.”

Clifton was cast as Louie’s brother in the episode “A Full House for Christmas,” and he didn’t endear himself to the cast when he arrived late and then retreated to his dressing room for over an hour to have very loud sex with two prostitutes he had brought with him. When rehearsals finally got underway, Tony kept changing the dialogue and announced that he’d written parts for his hooker friends as well. Jeff Conaway stormed off the set and Judd Hirsch got into a shouting match with Tony that ended up with punches thrown. Ed. Weinberger summoned security guards to escort Tony Clifton off the Paramount lot, which Andy Kaufman later stated had been his entire purpose behind that bit of “theater.”

10. REVEREND JIM'S LOOPY CHARACTER WAS ORIGINALLY ASSIGNED TO TONY.

The evolution of the show's characters got a little confusing: In the beginning, Phil Ryan (the boxer) was supposed to be somewhat punch drunk and dim-witted. When Tony Danza was hired, the producers decided that he was more convincing playing a young, somewhat naive and innocent type, rather than a confused bumbler. Problem was, Randall Carver had already been cast as John Burns, a wide-eyed country bumpkin new to New York City. As season one progressed, the producers realized that the two characters were too similar and their lines were almost interchangeable. So John Burns was written out after the first season and Christopher Lloyd, who played 1960s drug casualty Reverend Jim Ignatowski, was added to the cast to provide the eccentric goofiness originally intended for Tony Banta.

11. REVEREND JIM'S CLOTHES CAME FROM CHRISTOPHER LLOYD'S OWN WARDROBE.

Well, sort of. The old unwashed jeans were his, and the shoes belonged to his ex-father-in-law. The jacket was something his next door neighbor found discarded in his shrubbery while he was gardening one day. When Lloyd arrived in that outfit for his audition, unshaven and unshampooed, the receptionist thought he was a homeless person who had managed to wander past security and onto the Paramount lot. He said she looked genuinely surprised to find his name on the appointment list.

12. THE THEME SONG WAS CHANGED AT THE LAST MINUTE.

The original choice for the theme song was “Touchdown,” by jazz musician Bob James. But a James composition that was used for a sequence in the series' third episode, “Blind Date,” somehow seemed more appropriate. The melancholy tune was played while Alex walks up to an apartment door on his dubious second date with the acidic Angela Matusa.

13. THAT'S TONY DANZA DRIVING THE CAB IN THE OPENING CREDITS.

He’s piloting his Checker cab across New York’s Queensboro Bridge. The segment loops several times while the credits appear onscreen, giving the appearance of a taxi travelling on an endless bridge, getting nowhere, much like the characters in the show.

14. BOBBY WHEELER WAS WRITTEN OFF AFTER JEFF CONAWAY WAS FIRED.

In 2008, Jeff Conaway told the Calgary Herald that he quit the show in 1981 because "they dishonoured me. They disrespected me, they didn't keep their deal. You know I didn't have to do a TV series at that time—I had a movie career going. I mean if I had not done that series I'd be a $20 million movie actor right now. I'm better than most of those jerks out there. When I left the show it dropped 20 rating points and it was cancelled."

It’s possible that Conaway's declaration was colored by a call Taxi writer/producer Sam Simon made to Howard Stern’s radio program two months earlier where he described finding Conaway, a known drug addict, on the floor of his dressing room one day, too high to report for filming. His lines were divvied up between Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd with no reduction in the amount of audience laughter, which is when the producers realized that Bobby Wheeler was expendable. Conaway passed away in 2011 at the age of 60.

15. TAXI WAS CANCELLED NOT ONCE, BUT TWICE.

ABC, which had been Taxi’s home for four seasons, abruptly cancelled the show in 1982. The cast bid their farewells but then got the news that both NBC and HBO were interested in picking up the series. NBC won the bidding war and ran the series for one more season, which put it just over the 100 episodes necessary to make a good syndication package.

Additional Sources:
Happier Days: Paramount Television's Classic Sitcoms 1974-1984, by Marley Brant
The Taxi Book: The Complete Guide to Television's Most Lovable Cabbies, by Jeff Sorensen
Andy Kaufman: The Truth, Finally, by Bob Zmuda and Lynne Margulies
Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community, by Saul Austerlitz

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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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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