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bethom1 via eBay

Remembering The Jerky Boys

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bethom1 via eBay

Johnny Brennan and Kamal Ahmed bonded over a dummy. It was the 1970s, and a teenaged Brennan had dressed a human-shaped sack in a football helmet and jersey before launching it off the roof of his parents’ Queens home and in front of oncoming traffic. Panic-stricken, drivers would swerve to avoid a collision while Brennan was in hysterics.

Ahmed, who was several years younger, found that he shared his neighbor’s questionable taste in humor. With Ahmed as a co-conspirator, Brennan would spend much of the 1980s and '90s making prank phone calls to businesses in various character guises, insulting employees or owners with belligerent requests for work. Though it started as a lark, The Jerky Boys would go on to sell millions of albums, star in a movie, and inspire a future generation of comedic talent like director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) and Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy). Spin magazine once declared them the “Hall & Oates of crank calling.”

There’s just one problem with that comparison: Hall & Oates stayed together.

Although phony phone calls have probably been around for as long as the telephone itself, it wasn’t until the 1960s that entertainers began using them as a premise for comedy. Jerry Lewis made calls using an expensive recording system he had Paramount build for him, releasing the back-and-forth on his albums. Steve Allen did the same, with compilations that came from his late-night talk show.

But it wasn’t until Jim Davidson and John Elmo, better known as the Bum Bar Bastards, decided to prank a salty old bar owner named Louis “Red” Deutsch in the mid-1970s that crank calls morphed into a raw, underground sensation. The two would call Deutsch at the Tube Bar and ask to speak to “Ben Dover” or another sophomoric patron.

Red, who seemed to have a zero-tolerance policy for humor, would escalate the situation rapidly.

“I’ll put a few bullets into you, yo muddaf*ckin’ bum!” he rasped. “Come over here and say these things!” Davidson and Elmo did not, but they did keep calling Red almost every weekend for two years straight.

The “Tube Bar tapes” proved there was an appetite for a garage-band level of prank callers. In 1986, Brennan started breaking up the monotony of his construction job by coming home and pranking New York businesses with a tape recorder running. Honing characters like the brusque Frank Rizzo or the withdrawn Sol Rosenberg, Brennan would rope unsuspecting civilians into his audio sketches, prompting outbursts of anger or resignation; Ahmed would sometimes whisper jokes into his ear.

Ahmed, who worked as a bouncer, gave one of their tapes to a club patron. Before long, the calls were being dubbed and circulated through small-press music ‘zines like Factsheet Five and aired on morning shows. Howard Stern started to recap the machinations of Frank Rizzo.

Calling an auto mechanic, “Rizzo” made his case for an open position.

“Are you applying for a job?”

“That’s right, tough guy. I’ve worked on race cars for 18 years … right now I had to leave an old job because of problems with my boss … I’ll come down there with my tools and start work tomorrow!”

“I have to hire you first, guy.”

“Well, I’m the best!”

Sensing opportunity, Brennan and Ahmed began selling their tapes through a 900 number. Their continued popularity got them signed for a full-fledged record release in 1993.

At the time, the team still didn’t have a name. When Brennan told his mother about the album deal, she suggested they call themselves The Jerky Boys.

Bolstered by airtime—and as a consequence, free advertising—on national radio programs, The Jerky Boys went double platinum, selling 500,000 copies. The Jerky Boys 2 followed in 1994, and sold the same number in its first two weeks of release. Brennan and Ahmed quit their day jobs, hired a manager, and devoted themselves full-time to the business of annoying people.

The boys didn’t bother with any legal details early on. Once success hit and the potential for lawsuits loomed, a crank call would typically be followed by a more reserved phone call from their manager, who would try to convince the offended party to sign a release form. Most would: Brennan once recalled that only one suit was ever filed as a result of his years as a telephone harassment specialist.

The success of the albums drew the attention of Hollywood. The kids of singer Tom Jones were reported to be big fans. In 1994, Brennan and Ahmed were courted by actors Tony Danza and Emilio Estevez, who executive produced The Jerky Boys movie in 1995. The film—in which the two played fictionalized versions of themselves—gave them unprecedented visibility but savage reviews. An unimpressed critic from The New York Times noted that:

“As telephone guerrillas puncturing institutional defenses with their rude crank phone calls, the Jerky Boys have touched a nerve. The comic flailings of these self-described ‘lowlifes from Queens’ are comic cries of anger from a social stratum that looks ahead and sees only dead ends. Adopting funny voices and taping phone calls that make fools of their frequently snippy recipients is as efficient a way as any of momentarily leveling the social landscape.”

Undeterred, the Boys released several more albums before Ahmed decided to call it quits to pursue a filmmaking career. The split seemed less than amicable, with Ahmed chastising Brennan for continuing what he felt was a juvenile pursuit and Brennan downplaying Ahmed’s contributions.

Brennan released two more albums in 2001 and 2007, but stayed largely silent. He told Rolling Stone in 2014 that the death of his father in 2000 diluted his passion for pranking: His dad had been an inspiration for the rough-hewn Frank Rizzo character.

While Brennan wasn’t producing much new material, his library of classics endured. Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy, credited Brennan with helping to shape his sense of humor; so did Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig, who felt inspired to commit to what people might consider “lowbrow” comedy in films like Bridesmaids.

Today, the 53-year-old Brennan operates The Jerky Boys's official website, which is home to sporadic new calls and a small line of gourmet foods. Although Ahmed is still absent, his business is still plural: Brennan has explained that the “Boys” of the name refers to his characters, not themselves.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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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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