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13 Out-of-This World Facts About Mork & Mindy

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Mork & Mindy only lasted four seasons, but from language (shazbot!) to fashion (those rainbow suspenders), the series certainly left its mark on pop culture—including introducing the world to a comedian named Robin Williams. Had the Orkan alien delivered a report on his own show to Orson, here are 13 things he would have shared.

1. THE SHOW WAS INSPIRED BY AN EPISODE OF THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW.

You’ve probably heard that Mork & Mindy was a spinoff of an alien character on Happy Days, and that’s true. But the Happy Days character was inspired by an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show called “It May Look Like a Walnut,” which featured an alien played by Danny Thomas. When Dick Van Dyke director Jerry Paris was later hired to direct some Happy Days episodes, producer Garry Marshall mentioned that his Star Wars-obsessed young son wanted to see a spaceman on TV. Paris remembered the success of "Walnut," and Mork's extraterrestrial encounter with the Cunningham clan was created. The episode “My Favorite Orkan” was such a hit that it received its own spinoff: Mork & Mindy.

2. DOM DELUISE WAS ONE OF THE ORIGINAL MORKS.

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It's hard to imagine anyone other than Robin Williams playing Mork, but before he made the part his, Dom DeLuise and Roger Rees had both signed on for the Happy Days guest spot. They both backed out of the deal for various reasons, and casting directors were left with a very specific role to fill.

3. WILLIAMS WAS "THE ONLY ALIEN TO AUDITION."

Robin Williams was brought in to audition because the casting agent, one of Marshall's sisters, had noticed him in an acting class another sister, Penny, was taking. Garry Marshall chose Robin Williams because “he was the only alien to audition.” When he was asked to take a seat at the audition, Williams sat in the chair upside down. "It was immediately obvious that he was exactly right for the role: anarchic and a little bit crazy, you could easily believe he was actually an alien," Marshall said.

4. PAM DAWBER DIDN'T REALIZE SHE HAD BEEN CAST.

Pam Dawber had a development deal with ABC where they paid to keep her under contract until they found a project for her or the contract expired. She filmed one pilot called Sister Terri that flopped: "I played a nun who used to be a gang leader but she found God, so she's there to fix up the neighborhood," Dawber explained. It didn't sell, but scenes she filmed for it were later spliced with scenes of Robin Williams from his appearance on Happy Days. The cobbled-together example did the trick, and Mork & Mindy was sold without so much as a pilot. Dawber found out about it when her agent discovered a write-up of the show in Variety. "I hadn't auditioned, I hadn't met, and I knew nothing," Dawber said. "I remember going, 'And who in the hell is Robin Williams?'"

5. BOULDER WAS CHOSEN ON A WHIM.

Much like the rest of the "pilot," the show's location wasn't thought out very well. Garry Marshall had a niece attending school in Boulder, and it was the first place that came to mind when they were writing up a description of the show's plot.

6. CONTRARY TO REPORTS, WILLIAMS DIDN’T AD LIB THE ENTIRE ROLE.

During the height of the show’s popularity, there were rumors and even articles that said the role of Mork was largely unscripted—that the writers would just leave massive blank spots in the scripts that said “Robin does his thing.” As you might imagine, the show's writers didn't take too kindly to that. “We’re up until four in the morning writing Robin’s ad libs,” writer David Misch used to respond.

7. CENSORS WERE OFTEN A PROBLEM.

By today's standards, Mork & Mindy is a pretty wholesome show. In one episode, a character played by Morgan Fairchild tells Mork that she's pregnant. Nothing wrong with that, right? Wrong. Censors wouldn't allow the word "pregnant." The line had to be changed to, "Mork, I'm having a baby." Misch believed the distinction was an important one to the network: "My interpretation of that is: Being pregnant means you’ve had sex, but having a baby is adorable."

8. MORK AND MINDY'S HOUSE IS STILL A POPULAR BOULDER LANDMARK.

Mork and Mindy’s residence was a real house in Boulder, Colorado—in fact, it’s still there, and it’s still a popular tourist destination. After Williams’s death in 2014, fans flocked to the private residence and left memorials on the fence.

9. YOU MAY KNOW THE VOICE OF "ORSON" FROM OTHER PROJECTS.

Mork checked in with his boss, Orson, at the end of every show. Though Orson sounded like a pretty stern fellow, you probably know the voice of actor Ralph James due to some friendlier voiceover work: He was Mr. Turtle in the classic Tootsie Roll Pops commercial.

10. ROBIN WILLIAMS LEARNED ABOUT THE SHOW'S CANCELATION VIA VARIETY.

Much like Pam Dawber found out she was hired, Robin Williams found out they were fired via the media. "I found out the show was canceled by reading it in Variety," he said.

11. THE PITCH FOR SEASON FIVE WAS A LITTLE BIZARRE.

Season four ended with Mork and Mindy stranded in prehistoric times, thanks to a pair of magic, time-traveling shoes. Season five would have added an educational aspect to the show, with the duo using the shoes to meet historical figures such as Ben Franklin and Abe Lincoln. It wasn’t picked up.

12. IT WAS VERY BRIEFLY SPUN OFF INTO A CARTOON.

Though season five didn't materialize, Mork & Mindy did carry on—in animated form. Along with a trio of other sitcom favorites, Mork and Mindy were the stars of an hour-long cartoon on ABC called Mork & Mindy/Laverne & Shirley/Fonz Hour that ran only one season, from 1982 to 1983.

13. WILLIAMS AND DAWBER REUNITED IN 2014 FOR THE CRAZY ONES.

Fans who waited decades to see Mork and Mindy together again were rewarded for their patience in 2014, when Dawber made a guest appearance on Williams's new sitcom, The Crazy Ones. Playing his love interest for an episode was like slipping into "an old shoe," she said. "Fits somewhat more loosely," Williams added.

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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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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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