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5 Bizarre Brand Extensions We Completely Endorse!

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When Harley-Davidson made motorcycle boots and leather jackets, that made sense. When the rugged brand started hawking cake decorating kits, that made less sense. And it made us laugh. Here are a five other confused brand extensions we heartily endorse.

1. Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover's Soul Dog Food

The Chicken Soup for the Soul series of books have been bestsellers since the first one was published in 1993. Various special editions followed, including Chicken Soup for the Dog and Cat Lover's Soul in 1998 and Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover's Soul a year later. Seeing a gap in the book-based pet food market, the brand decided to launch dog and cat foods named for the book in the early 2000s. While the website for the company contains answers to questions such as "Where are your foods made?" and "Do you use any chemical preservatives?", it doesn't answer the more important questions like, "Why does a book need a tie-in pet food?" and "What if my soul is vegetarian?"

2. Heinz All-Natural Cleaning Vinegar

Picture 10.pngEvery kitchen has a bottle of vinegar. The versatile liquid is a staple in dressings and middle school volcano experiments. But when the popular Household Hint columnist Heloise showed that it could be used to remove rust, kill weeds, and clean a variety of surfaces and materials, vinegar makers started salivating. Heinz, for one, saw the magic liquid's potential, and expanded into the household cleaner market.Released in 1991 in four test markets and marketed as "Heloise's Most Helpful Hint," the Cleaning Vinegar had twice the acid content of regular white vinegar and was lemon scented. Needless to say, the product was a failure. Consumers were confused by the similar looking bottles and the specific purpose of the solution, and the product never made it beyond the test markets.

3. Dunkin Donuts Pizza

Picture 64.pngIn a bid to move beyond donuts and coffee, Dunkin Donuts has been flirting with selling made-to-order personal pizzas in a handful of markets since late 2006. While the pizzas may be delicious, consumers are still wrapping their heads around buying pizzas at a donut shop. While we're not sure who convinced DD to encroach on Pizza Huts personal pan territory, we'd love to see more products. Dunkin Donuts burritos? Or maybe Dunkin Donuts track shoes (what better way to tie in to their America to run on Dunkin slogan).

4. Gerber Singles

gerber singlesPicture 74.pngSounds like something out of an April Fool's Day press release—a baby food company releasing a version of its product for adults. Gerber Singles were no joke, though, and small jars containing fruits, vegetables, starters, and desserts appeared on store shelves in 1974. Clearly it wasn't a good idea. Customers had no interest in eating "˜Creamed Beef' out of a baby food jar, and the name of the product, "Singles" couldn't have helped either. As Business 2.0's Susan Casey said, "they might as well have called it "˜I Live Alone and Eat My Meals From a Jar.'" Gerber's baby food for adults ranks up there with New Coke as one of the worst brand failures of all time.

5. Smith & Wesson Mountain Bikes

Picture 55.pngSmith & Wesson are the largest handgun manufacturer in the United States, and have even made "this home protected by a Smith & Wesson security system" claims true with the release of a security system of sorts. Smart move. A less savvy extension? Introducing a mountain bike. First marketed to police officers, the bikes are now available to all consumers anxious to get their hands on a bike bearing the name of their favorite gun company. Of course, the company is offering a whole lot incentive: Customers who add a set of handcuffs or some handguns onto their bike purchase won't get charged for shipping and handling!

Know of any stranger brand extensions? Drop us a line in the comments.

ed. note: We stand corrected! We've changed the Dunkin Donuts pizza section to reflect the reader comments.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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