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Cold War: The Legal Battle Between Good Humor and the Popsicle Corporation

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Advances in refrigeration technology led to an explosion in the world of ice creams and other frozen treats in the early 1900s. The ice cream cone, ice cream bar, Eskimo Pie, disposable ice cream cup, and ice pop were all invented or popularized within the first two decades of the century. Just a few years later, Harry Burt and Frank Epperson almost simultaneously invented what would become two of America’s most enduring brands of frozen novelty.

Burt, a Youngstown, Ohio, confectioner, hit upon a “new, clean, convenient way to eat ice cream” when he inserted a stick into a chocolate-covered ice cream bar. He called it the Good Humor Bar.

Epperson’s invention was less intentional. As a young man, he’d left a sweet, syrupy soft drink with a stirring stick outside on a cold night. When he went to retrieve it in the morning, he found the drink frozen around the stick. Later, he recreated his accident for manufacture. He dubbed it the “Epsicle,” but his kids quickly renamed it the “Pop’s Sicle.”

The Popsicle, as it was eventually branded, was what you would call sherbet or water ice on a stick, while the Good Humor Bar was chocolate-covered ice cream on the same conveyance. They seem different enough, but the similarities were a little too close for the comfort of the inventors. Both Burt and Epperson held patents on the methods for making their products and on a few pieces of specialized equipment involved, and had filed lawsuits against imitators before. The almost-instant success of their respective treats brought them to each other’s attention, and a legal battle broke out.

Burt had received his patents first and, through them, insisted that he had the sole rights to all forms of frozen confections on sticks. In 1925, Good Humor sued the Popsicle Corporation for infringement of its rights. The parties reached an out-of-court agreement that basically split the market. Popsicle would pay a licensing fee to Burt, and would limit their products to treats “comprising a mass of flavored syrup, water ice or sherbet frozen on a stick.” Burt, meanwhile, would keep the exclusive rights to produce “frozen suckers from ice cream, frozen custard or the like." They also agreed to that Popsicle’s products would maintain a “cylindrical form,” while “rectangular forms” would be Burt's.

Got Milk Popsicles?

The agreement kept the peace for a while, but some of Popsicle’s licensees pressured the company to capitalize on a drop in dairy prices with an ice-cream-on-a-stick product of its own. In 1931, Popsicle approached Good Humor with the idea of redefining the division of products to allow them to manufacture products with less than 4.5% butter fat, like a “milk popsicle.”

Good Humor rebuffed them, but their agreement allowed Popsicle to make “sherbet,” without giving a set definition to the term. Popsicle felt confident that an ice milk with 4.48% butter fat (and a cylindrical form) counted as sherbet and didn’t violate the agreement. They began rolling the product out in 1931 and Good Humor brought them back to court almost immediately.

The testimony from both sides largely revolved around the definition of sherbet, with Good Humor arguing that it was "flavored water ice,” and Popsicle claiming that a milk sherbet was still a sherbet in the parlance of the ice cream industry.

The judge ultimately decided that “sherbet” in the 1925 agreement was strictly meant to mean a "water sherbet," and issued an injunction against Popsicle’s new product. Permanent peace only came years later when both the Good Humor Bar and the Popsicle came under the ownership of Unilever.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]