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Nic Cage via YouTube

Dead Air: The Talk Show Guest Who Died on Dick Cavett's Stage

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Nic Cage via YouTube

During his first few years on the air, talk show host Dick Cavett might have imagined his worst moment as a broadcaster would remain the night when actors Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and John Cassavetes showed up for a taping drunk and incoherent. Things got so bad that at one point Cavett walked off his own show.

That was September 18, 1970. Less than a year later, Cavett would outdo himself. Interviewing New York Post columnist Pete Hamill, Cavett and his guest stopped momentarily to regard the odd behavior of the man sitting a few feet away. Jerome Rodale, who had just spent 30 minutes talking to Cavett about the organic food lifestyle he promoted, was snoring loudly.

That was funny only during the brief time it took for Cavett to realize Rodale’s color was pallid and that his head was slumped listlessly against his shoulder. Moments after the 72-year-old had declared he “never felt better in my life,” Rodale was dead, having expired in full view of ABC's cameras.

 

Wikimedia Commons

The name Jerome Rodale doesn’t have the same resonance today that it once did. At one time, the man media dubbed “Mr. Organic” was one of the most famous health advocates in the country, urging consumers to ignore the store aisles of increasingly processed food and to eat as many natural, whole foods as possible.

After a spell writing unsuccessful plays and self-publishing books, Rodale spent several years heading up magazines that espoused good nutritional habits. Many—like Prevention—are still in circulation today; others were used as a pulpit for Rodale to broadcast some of his more eccentric views on longevity and wellness. Polio, he once wrote, could be avoided not by vaccination but by eating a balanced diet; club soda contributed to poor eyesight.

It was contrary, occasionally outlandish advice, but Americans ate it up. By 1971, Rodale was firmly in control of a publishing empire and even made the cover of The New York Times Magazine for his status as a leading organic food advocate—at the time, a novel idea. The resulting publicity caught the attention of Cavett, who was preparing to tape a program in New York on June 7 of that year and had one spot open for a guest. His producers booked Rodale with the expectation that some of his more eccentric advice would make for good television.

They weren’t wrong. After Cavett opened his show with an act involving trained monkeys and comedian Marshall Efron, Rodale strolled out to the set bearing gifts. One was a goose egg that he declared harbored numerous health benefits; another was some asparagus that he claimed had been boiled in urine. The audience, perhaps drawing a line at consuming their own waste to benefit their health, responded with concerned murmuring.

Cavett, however, was happy. Rodale was as advertised, and the two spent 30 minutes of Cavett’s 90-minute running time exploring Rodale’s plans to live to be 100.

When Hamill came out, Rodale made room and shifted to another seat. After a few minutes, he appeared to lose consciousness. Though Cavett doesn’t recall it, he’s been told some people remember him asking Rodale if they were boring him.

Once Cavett realized what was happening, he began to shout for a doctor in the audience. Two medical interns rushed the stage, attending to a now-prostrate Rodale. "Two stewardesses in the front row who’d been winking and joking with me during the commercial breaks were now crying," Cavett recalled. "I guess from their training and having seen emergencies, they knew the score."

As police and EMTs began to fill the stage, it was obvious that Rodale would not be leaving under his own power. His inert body was taken away on a stretcher, leaving Cavett and his astonished audience to process what had just happened. Rodale had suffered a fatal heart attack.

 

Rodale’s death didn’t go on the air that night—or any night, for that matter. Both ABC and Cavett had the good sense to never exploit the incident in any way out of respect for Rodale and his family. Cavett aired a rerun, then went on the following night to explain what happened to viewers who had read of the incident in the papers. (Hamill had been taking notes during the entire fiasco.)

Cavett did watch the tape several weeks later with some of his production staff, and it’s likely someone in the network’s pipeline made copies of the morbid footage to give to their wives or friends as a scare. Aside from those incidences, Rodale’s death has never been seen by anyone.

Despite that embargo, Cavett once estimated that he is confronted 20 or so times a year by people who want to discuss “the guy who died on your show” and how shocked they were to see it. Cavett had painted such a detailed picture of the segment on his show that it created a kind of false memory in his viewers, some of whom could not be convinced the show didn’t actually air. A 2007 New York Times editorial by Cavett recalling the episode even featured a comment by one reader who swore that “I DID see this.” If they did, you’d think they’d remember the urine-soaked asparagus, 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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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