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Turner/DIC Entertainment

How Captain Planet Turned Kids Green

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Turner/DIC Entertainment

Sometime in the late 1980s, Ted Turner came to a conclusion about Scooby-Doo: It didn’t have much of a message.

Nor did Yogi Bear, or The Flintstones, or any of Hanna-Barbera’s multiple animated properties that Turner had purchased the rights to air as part of his children’s programming blocks on the Turner Broadcasting Station (TBS). Scooby was not concerned with the environment—his friends got around in a smoke-belching van. As an environmental activist, Turner decided he wanted to use more of TBS’s airtime to explore the effects of pollution, deforestation, and the ozone layer.

In 1988, Turner summoned Barbara Pyle, his vice president of environmental concerns, and gave her two words: "Captain Planet." Pyle asked what that meant.

"Figure it out," he said, and turned away.

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The rise of eco-consciousness in the 1980s had been reflected on an episode-by-episode basis on several television shows, but none had ever made it the recurring focus. With Captain Planet and the Planeteers, an animated series that ran from 1990 to 1996, Turner had ushered in the first programming of its kind: a narrative that hinged directly on the man-made hazards putting stress on the environment.

Working with producers Thom Beers and Nicholas Boxer, Pyle took Turner’s notion and beefed it up considerably: Captain Planet would be a mullet-wearing hero who materializes when summoned by the Planeteers, a group of five teenagers from across the globe who try to minimize the damage done by eco-villains like Looten Plunder and Verminous Skumm. Instead of bank robberies, the team would confront tuna fishermen entrapping dolphins and oil drillers. Pollution would weaken Captain Planet; solar energy would empower him.

Pyle ran a full-page ad in The Hollywood Reporter, calling on the entertainment industry to lend its talents to television’s first environmentally-aware educational program for kids. Despite having no credits in voiceover work, Tom Cruise was the first to get back to her; as an activist, Cruise appreciated the message and agreed to voice Captain Planet, who bore a passing resemblance to the actor. Whoopi Goldberg, Neil Patrick Harris, Jeff Goldblum, and several other well known actors followed suit. Pyle even got Carl Sagan and Jean-Michel Cousteau (Jacques's son) to consult on the program for no fee.

But when Captain Planet and the Planeteers premiered in September of 1990—it aired both on TBS and in syndication—Cruise was nowhere to be heard. After recording six episodes, the Days of Thunder star was reportedly insistent on having more control in how the show was merchandised and what topics it would explore. (At the time, his representatives declared it was a scheduling issue.) Rather than have a jarring vocal change during the first season, producers opted to re-record his lines.

Turner, meanwhile, had tried to convince his board of directors that the expensive series would be worthwhile. Fearing kids wouldn’t want anything to do with a "message" cartoon or that they might not even pick up on the message at all, they insisted Turner was wasting money.

Very informal polls of kids saw things differently. In a piece in The New York Times, 8-year-old critic Mollie Lief said she grasped the concept of an episode in which animal watering holes were drying up. "The elephants, the birds, the fish, they have to have water," she said. "It’s a good show to teach children."

Savvy consumer that she was, Lief also mentioned she had no desire for a Captain Planet T-shirt, declaring "that's not my style."

That sentiment might have disappointed Turner, who was dependent on the 50-plus licensees making tie-in products to help fund the Captain Planet Foundation, a firm devoted to financing environmental education programs. Unlike most shows, toys for Captain Planet had to meet a reasonable standard of sustainability. A globe bearing the Captain’s likeness was made from paperboard and stuffed with recycled clothing; toy packaging used recycled cardboard. (There was never getting around the plastic used for the action figures, which some observers cheerfully pointed out was counter-productive to the show’s aversion to wastefulness.)

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By 1993, Captain Planet was a success: more than 7 million weekly viewers tuned in to see how the Planeteers would resolve ivory poaching, puppy mills, and radiation leaks. Brief 30-second spots at the end would highlight tips that could be implemented in the home, like cutting up six-pack plastic rings before disposal. Other cartoons, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, began to slip in eco-friendly messages: the Turtles reminded kids not to leave the water running while brushing.

Unlike most animated shows of the era, which typically had short production runs of two or three years, Captain Planet ran for six seasons and 113 episodes. In 1994, it even changed its name to The New Adventures of Captain Planet to remind viewers they weren’t watching reruns.

It was a large library of lecturing, and not everyone was pleased. Some critics believed the series instilled a concerning suspicion of humans in children, where man and technology were inevitably responsible for harming nature. One pundit called it the "greenwashing" of youth.

In the end, Captain Planet was in little danger of creating an environmental cult. According to Pyle, environmental consciousness ceased to be cool; Turner wound up selling TBS to Time-Warner, minimizing his input over content. The sixth and final season, which was aired internationally, was on ice for 10 years before being screened in the United States.

It wouldn’t be the Captain’s last stand, however. Laura Turner Seydel, Ted’s daughter, held fundraisers to keep the Captain Planet Foundation going, and the organization is still in operation today. The characters recently popped up in a Ford Focus commercial, and Hollywood is mulling a possible feature film. While a new wave of licensing might create new waste materials, the show really did try its best to practice what it preached: animators recycled the storyboards for each episode.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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]