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6 Marvelously Misguided Promotions

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I know, I know ... it's not easy launching a new product, or getting new customers to drop by your establishment for the first time, or advertising a movie. But if there's one lesson I've learned from these misguided promotions, it's that not all publicity is necessarily good publicity.

6. The CashTomato riot

Take, for example, the near-riot caused in NYC's Union Square when an upstart YouTube competitor called Cash Tomato started handing out tomatoes wrapped in dollar bills:

(By the way, I would've embedded's "top-rated" version of this video, but it wasn't loading ... does that qualify as ironic?)

5. Sam Adams Kids Night

My friend Phil spotted this in a Denver, CO bar. I guess it's possible they were just trying to save money by advertising two promotions on the same sign ...

4. Sony's Dead Goat Fiasco

The Daily Mail headline reads thusly: "Horror at Sony's depraved promotion stunt with decapitated goat."

"The corpse of the decapitated animal was the centrepiece of a party to celebrate the launch of the God Of War II game for the company's PlayStation 2 console. At the event, guests competed to see who could eat the most offal "“ procured elsewhere and intended to resemble the goat's intestines "“ from its stomach. They also threw knives at targets and pulled live snakes from a pit with their bare hands. Topless girls added to the louche atmosphere by dipping grapes into guests' mouths, while a male model portraying Kratos, the game's warrior hero, handed out garlands. The firm refused to say how the goat died. It is unusual for animals in modern Greece to be killed by having their throats cut, let alone by being decapitated."

Sounds like a helluva party. Here's a picture (with the goat's bloody stump tastefully pixelated):

3. Thomas Edison Seance Night

Growing up in South Florida, I was often reminded that inventor Thomas Edison spent his waning years in the sleepy seaside community of Fort Myers -- though something those civic boosters never mentioned was that Edison was an avid spiritualist who many times tried to communicate with the dead. This oddity wasn't lost on baseball executive Mike Veeck, who exploited it as a truly weird promotion for Fort Myers' baseball team, the Miracle. He describes the result:

"My first year in Fort Myers, Fla., we tried to call up the ghost of Thomas Edison. I got the idea when I was driving around one day and saw a sign for a spiritual advisor. We negotiated with her and she agreed to do it. The night of the game she had a sky blue gown on and we took her to home plate and she started to channel. As you might imagine, the ballpark crowd was very tough on this lady. It became like a chain-gang spiritual. She would say in a guttural voice, 'I can't reach you.' And some guy would yell, 'Tom's over here, lady!' As people left the stadium I heard someone say something that I loved. 'That was the stupidest thing I ever saw, but boy, was it funny.'"

Not exactly a disaster, but definitely weird.

2. Harvard's Roman Orgy Dance Party

Dubbed the "Decadenza," it was a reference to Rome's wild orgies. The party's slogan was "Freshman girls free" (as in free admission, though this was left intentionally vague), and they were called "vestal virgins" for the evening. (This reminds me, in spirit at least, of a seriously misguided frat party at USC a few years ago: the theme was "run for the border," and decorations included razor wire and makeshift fences, and people came dressed as border guards. Nice.) Needless to say, there was much flap about the promotion, decried as sleazy and shameless in the Harvard Crimson and elsewhere. I mean really, how much work do you have to do to get college kids to come and drink at a party?

1. Mission: Impossible III

You've probably all heard about this, but it deserves a hallowed place in the pantheon of misguided promotions nonetheless. Just before the movie came out, 4,500 randomly selected LA Times newspaper boxes were fitted with devices that would play the Mission: Impossible theme song when the box's door was opened (which according to Paramount Pictures was "designed to turn the 'everyday news rack experience' into an 'extraordinary mission.'")

Perhaps inevitably, some people found the newspaper boxes a little too extraordinary; see those guys in the picture above? They aren't movie fans ... they're the LA County bomb squad. Apparently, some of the 4,500 digital musical devices jarred loose from the inside of the door and fell onto the stack of newspapers. A little plastic box with red wires protruding ... not suspicious at all! Above is the last photo ever taken of the newspaper box in question -- it was blown up by the bomb squad minutes later. Mission accomplished.

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]