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4 Infomercial Superstars (and Where They Came From)

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I've discussed the various products hawked on late night TV in a previous column; this week takes an in-depth look at some of those personalities who've invaded our living rooms with such regularity that they feel like family.

1. Mike Levey has an "Amazing Discovery"

Picture 101.pngMike Levey graduated from college with a degree in electrical engineering, but after a stint as an advertising copywriter, he discovered that his true love was sales. He founded Direct Response Television in 1988, and a year later his infomercial brainchild, Amazing Discoveries, hit the airwaves. Armed with more enthusiasm than his Technicolor sweaters could contain and a compensated ($60 per person per show) studio audience, Levey spent the next several years convincing viewers around the world that they couldn't live without a stained glass craft kit or a vertical roaster. Levey's company sold billions of dollars worth of products, and the Sweaterman himself received fan mail from Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and several American prisons. In 1993 the Federal Trade Commission took a closer look at Amazing Discoveries and decided that a few of the products pitched were misleadingly advertised. Financial settlements were hammered out, Direct Response's stock price fell, and AD quietly went off the air. Mike Levey succumbed to cancer in 2003 at the age of 55.

2. Miss Cleo Senses Opportunity

During the early part of the new Millennium, Miss Cleo was the conduit between ordinary humans and the Fates. A self-proclaimed Jamaican shaman, Miss Cleo wore elaborate head wraps and broadcast her infomercials from a set filled with wicker furniture, candles and fake palm trees, which was evidence enough to convince insomniacs in Des Moines that she possessed supernatural powers. Miss Cleo was employed by Access Resources Services in Florida, which racked up $400 million in annual sales at the height of Cleo's popularity. But then those spoilsports at the Attorney General's office got involved and discovered that Miss Cleo was actually Los Angeles-born Youree Dell Harris, the daughter of American-born parents and who had previously gone by half a dozen aliases in various money-making schemes over the years. Luckily for her, when the lawsuits started flooding in, they were directed at her employer and not her personally, so she won' be doin' her readin's in prison, mon. In a 2006 interview with The Advocate, she came out as a lesbian, just in time to promote her appearance on VH1's The Surreal Life.

3. Billy Mays Cleans up his Act

If Billy Mays' onscreen sales technique reminds you of the "Step right up!"-style banter of a carnival barker, you're not far off the mark. Shortly after graduating from high school, Mays took a job selling a household device called the Washmatik on Atlantic City's Boardwalk. He then spent 12 years traveling the U.S. and selling everything from vegetable choppers to cleaning products at state fairs and home shows. Along the way he carefully studied the veteran pitchmen in neighboring booths and copied their shtick. In a nice slice of serendipity, Mays happened to be working across the aisle at a show from Max Appel, the founder of Orange Glo. Appel's microphone broke just prior to a presentation, and Mays graciously gave him one of his spares. The two struck up a friendship, which led to Mays becoming the national spokesperson for Orange Glo. That gig led to spots for OxiClean and Kaboom! and a recognition factor that automatically guarantees millions of dollars in sales for any product.
(nb: this video may be NSFW since Billy utters a discouraging word near the end.)

4. Anthony Sullivan: A HSN star is born

Anthony "Sully" Sullivan comes by that British accent legitimately "“ he spent the first 21 years of his life in Devon, England. Much like Billy Mays, Sully had an entrepreneurial spirit and eschewed college in order to study the street vendors in London. He soon developed a keen eye for the "next big thing" when it came to household gadgets, and started hawking products on his own. During a surfing vacation in Hawaii, he happened to discover a small company marketing a device that he immediately realized would be perfect for, say, scraping wet sand off kitchen floors. He got a job selling the Smart Mop at home shows, and was "discovered," Lana Turner-style, by the Home Shopping Network. Sullivan became an HSN celeb in his own right, but craved bigger and better things. He formed Sullivan Productions in 1999 and, like Mike Levey and others before him, scopes out the "next big thing" and pitches it with his own unique spin "“ mainly that authoritative accent.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
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WORLD WAR 1
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