CLOSE
Original image
CBS

5 Beloved Traditions Invented to Make You Buy Stuff

Original image
CBS

By Rebecca Zerzan

Here's how some beloved traditions came about, including diamond engagement rings and the ubiquitous green-bean casserole.

1. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

The origin of Rudolph has nothing to do with Jesus or Santa. He sprang from the mind of Robert May, a copywriter for Chicago's Montgomery Ward department store. May wrote and illustrated the poem (that later became the song) for the store's holiday coloring book in 1939. But Rudolph's fate was threatened when store execs realized that the animal's big, glowing honker might put off consumers, because red noses were often associated with alcoholics. Luckily for May, shoppers embraced the story wholeheartedly. A whopping 2.4 million copies of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer were given out at the store that Christmas.

2. Green-Bean Casserole

America's favorite casserole dates back to 1955, when a chef named Dorcas Reilly created it for a cookbook designed to promote Campbell's products. By 2003, more than 20 million families (about one in four households) reportedly served the dish at Thanksgiving.

3. Diamond Engagement Rings

Prior to the 20th century, engagement rings were strictly luxury items, and they rarely contained diamonds. But in 1939, the De Beers diamond company changed all of that when it hired ad agency N.W. Ayer & Son. The industry had taken a nosedive in the 1870s, after massive diamond deposits were discovered in South Africa. But the ad agency came to the rescue by introducing the diamond engagement ring and quietly spreading the trend through fashion magazines. The rings didn't become de rigueur for marriage proposals until 1948, when the company launched the crafty "A Diamond is Forever" campaign. By sentimentalizing the gems, De Beers ensured that people wouldn't resell them, allowing the company to retain control of the market. In 1999, De Beers chairman Nicky Oppenheimer confessed, "Diamonds are intrinsically worthless, except for the deep psychological need they fill."

In addition to diamond engagement rings, De Beers also promoted surprise proposals. The company learned that when women were involved in the selection process, they picked cheaper rings. By encouraging surprise proposals, De Beers shifted the purchasing power to men, the less-cautious spenders.

4. Valentine's Day Candy

Greeting-card companies didn't invent valentines. Candy suppliers, on the other hand, were very much behind the idea of giving out Valentine's Day candy. In fact, the tradition almost seems born out of jealousy. In 1892, Confectioners Journal advocated persuading customers that candy was better than "cheap, grotesque" valentines. The floodgates were opened, and by 2004, consumers were buying more than 35 million heart-shape boxes of candy each year.

5. Wedding Registries

In the 1900s, it was customary for only close family members to give wedding presents. But gradually, newlyweds came to expect gifts from friends, as well. Detecting a trend, department stores started to direct engaged customers to their home furnishings and kitchenware departments, encouraging them to think of their weddings as a time to acquire the tools for domestic life. In 1924, the Marshall Field & Company department store in Chicago created the first wedding registry, and the "tradition" took off. Today, up to 96 percent of American couples register their weddings.

This list originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
quiz
arrow
Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
Original image
SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES