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I’m So Excited: When Saved by the Bell Tackled the Caffeine Pill Issue

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In the Saved by the Bell universe, Jessie Spano is the one Bayside Tiger you’d always want in your corner. Intelligent, ambitious, and driven, Jessie was also an outspoken liberal and feminist. And in “Jessie’s Song,” a season two episode that premiered on November 3, 1990, she was—at least for a brief moment—a singing-and-dancing caffeine pill addict.

While other teen sitcoms were courting controversy with storylines that dabbled in sex, drugs, and alcoholism, Saved by the Bell kept to its relatively family-friendly mandate (it did air as part of the Saturday Morning Cartoon lineup, after all) by opting to make Jessie’s drug of choice the kind you could buy over the counter at any pharmacy or grocery store—just a few shelves away from the Flintstones Vitamins. But that didn’t mean that actress Elizabeth Berkley couldn’t make it totally over-the-top.

In a 2009 interview with People, Berkley admitted that the episode—in which the stress of balancing schoolwork with her band, Hot Sundae (repeat: Hot Sundae) becomes too much for Jessie (a.k.a. “Mama”) to handle—is her favorite memory from the show. “It was so extreme,” said Berkley. “We made a music video; we were thrilled!”

Back in 2015, for the 25th anniversary of “Jessie’s Song,” Thrillist attempted to corral some of the episode’s key participants into a conversation about its impact, but only director Don Barnhart—who helmed more than 200 episodes of the show—participated. And admitted that, even a quarter-century later, the episode still makes him somewhat emotional.

“I had to keep holding [Elizabeth] back, because when we got to Wednesday or Thursday [rehearsals], she was ready to let it go,” recalled Barnhart. “I had to hold her back so that when she got to Friday, it was a fresh, tearful scene. As a matter of fact, just talking about it 25 years later, I get a little choked up about it.”

For Berkley, actions speak louder than words. Though she did not participate in Thrillist’s attempted oral history, she has shown her appreciation (and sense of humor) about “Jessie’s Song,” most in 2013, when she recreated the scene as part of a routine on Dancing With the Stars. She then teased the line as part of a Saved by the Bell reunion on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. She’s about to lose control and we think she likes it.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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