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15 Future Stars Who Appeared on PBS Kids

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Over the decades, children’s public television programming—namely, PBS Kids—has jumpstarted the careers of a number of soon-to-be-famous actors. Here are 15 of them.

1. BEN AFFLECK // THE VOYAGE OF THE MIMI (1984)

At the age of 12, more than a dozen years before winning his first Academy Award, Ben Affleck received his breakout role as C.T. Granville in The Voyage of the Mimi. The series was produced for middle school science classrooms and aired on PBS in 1984. It followed the crew of the Mimi, as they explored the ocean and took a census of humpback whales. Four years later, a second series—The Second Voyage of the Mimi—was produced, with Affleck reprising his role.

2. MORGAN FREEMAN // THE ELECTRIC COMPANY (1971-1977)

Morgan Freeman was a series regular on The Electric Company during its entire run from 1971 to 1977. The future Oscar winner played a number of recurring roles, including Easy Reader, Mel Mounds, and Vincent the Vegetable Vampire.

3. SARAH JESSICA PARKER // 3-2-1 CONTACT (1980)

In 1980, a year after taking on the title role in Broadway’s Annie, Sarah Jessica Parker appeared as the Little Orphan on 3-2-1 Contact. It was her first credited television appearance.

4. MICHAEL KEATON // MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD (1975)

In 1975, future Oscar nominee Michael Keaton worked a number of odd jobs at Pittsburgh’s public television station WQED, including stagehand, stage manager, and eventually background player on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. "When you worked at QED, you kind of did everything,” Keaton said during an interview on Live with Kelly and Michael. “So you would work on Fred [Rogers’] crew from time to time … [He] was one of the nicest, authentically good people you've ever met. Really good dude [with] kind of a sneaky, sly great sense of humor.”

5. SAMUEL L. JACKSON // GHOSTWRITER (1992)

Although he began his acting career in the early 1970s, Samuel L. Jackson didn’t gain stardom until the 1990s, after appearing in movies for directors Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino. During that same time, Jackson appeared on the PBS Kids show Ghostwriter, where he played the father of Jamal (Sheldon Turnipseed) in the series’ first mystery, “Ghost Story.”

6. STOCKARD CHANNING // SESAME STREET (1972-1988)

At age 28, future Oscar nominee Stockard Channing made her first credited television appearance as the “Mad Painter's Victim” on Sesame Street in 1972. The Mad Painter was a recurring segment where a painter would draw a number on practically anything in public, namely Channing. She reprises the role in the short segments throughout the 1970s and ‘80s.

7. DEMI LOVATO // BARNEY & FRIENDS (2002-2004)

In 2002, nine-year-old Demi Lovato made her television debut on Barney & Friends, where she played “Angela” during the show’s seventh and eighth seasons. Among Lovato’s co-stars during this time was fellow singer/actress Selena Gomez.

8. SELENA GOMEZ // BARNEY & FRIENDS (2002-2004)

In 2002, the same year that Demi Lovato made her debut, Selena Gomez joined the cast of Barney & Friends as “Gianna.” It was her first professional acting job, and she went on to appear in more than a dozen episodes of the series over the next two years. "I was very shy when I was little,” Gomez told People. “I didn't know what 'camera right' was. I didn't know what blocking was. I learned everything from Barney."

9. YEARDLEY SMITH // SQUARE ONE TV (1987)

Two years before she began voicing Lisa Simpson on The Simpsons, Yeardley Smith appeared on PBS Kids’ Square One TV. She played a gorilla handler named Jane Rice-Burroughs in four of the first season’s “Mathnet” detective segments.

10. RAÚL JULIÁ // SESAME STREET (1971-1972)

While he was already a rising star on Broadway, Raúl Juliá appeared as Rafael, one of the co-founders of the Fix-It Shop with Luis (Emilio Delgado), on Sesame Street. Juliá had a short stint on the series, only appearing in four episodes throughout season three.

11. JULIA STILES // GHOSTWRITER (1993-1994)

In 1993, at the age of 12, Julia Stiles made her television debut as the computer hacking enthusiast Erica Dansby on Ghostwriter. She appeared in season two's “Who Is Max Mouse?” mystery and season three’s “A Crime of Two Cities.”

12. REG E. CATHEY // SQUARE ONE TV (1987-1992)

Before he starred on HBO’s The Wire or Netflix’s House of Cards, Reg E. Cathey was a series regular on Square One TV. He played a number of roles and characters on the educational math variety show from 1987 to 1992.

13. MING-NA WEN // MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD (1985)

In 1985, Ming-Na Wen appeared on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a Royal Trumpeter for King Friday XIII’s court in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. The role marked her television debut.

14. KEITH DAVID // MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD (1983-1985)

During the mid-1980s, Keith David had a recurring role on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as Keith the Handyman. However, for one episode, David played a game coin collector who taught children to play video games. 

15. DULÉ HILL // GHOSTWRITER (1992)

In 1992, Dulé Hill appeared on Ghostwriter’s first season, in the episode “To Catch a Creep: Part 1.” “My first gig was when I was about 13,” Hill told PopMatters. “I played ‘Basketball Boy’ on the show Ghostwriter. I had about two lines. That’s how I got my SAG card and I did commercials, too.”

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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
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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