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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
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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.