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From Zippo Cars to the Peepmobile: 7 Bizarre Marketing Vehicles

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If your college was anything like mine, a day didn't go by without some company giving out free samples in wacky cars. The Red Bull car even had its own parking space down the street from the dorms. (Trying to resist the temptation when walking past a giant can of Red Bull before an early class is absolute torture.) Here are seven examples of even weirder promotional vehicles.

1. The Zippo Car

Built in 1947 for $25,000, the Zippo Car was a Chrysler Saratoga with two gigantic lighters sporting neon flames. The Zippo Car was used for fairs, expos and parades between 1948 and 1949, but mysteriously disappeared sometime in the 1950's when it was left at a Pittsburgh dealership for reconstruction and never returned. In 1996, Zippo commissioned a replica of the original Zippo car, and in 1998 the second Chrysler Saratoga—New Yorker was unveiled at the Zippo/Case Visitors Center.

2. Chock Full o' Nuts Truck

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The Chock Full o' Nuts novelty truck first appeared publicly in the late 1930s shortly after the coffee company originated in New York City. The vehicle was designed to resemble a comfortable cabin with a screened in porch—just the kind of place where you'd want to enjoy your morning java. The Chock Full o' Nuts brand has been owned by dessert queen Sara Lee since the year 2000. Image via JAMD.

3. The Children's Shoemaker Car

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This shoe may look a little like something out of a nursery rhyme, but it is actually a promotional vehicle created for Daniel Neal, The Children's Shoemaker, a business that originated in 1837 in London. The shoe was built on a 1921 Ford Model T with coachwork done by Riverside Motor Works. Presumably the message on the wheels is a brand of shoes.

4. Oscar Mayer Weinermobile

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Invented in 1936 by Carl G. Mayer (nephew of namesake Oscar), the Weinermobile has evolved over the years and the massive hot dog can currently be seen atop many different vehicles. Gas rationing kept the promotional car off the road during World War II, but in the 1950s, Oscar Mayer and the Gerstenslager Company created several new vehicles using Dodge and Jeep chassis. These vehicle were driven by "Little Oscar" who would frequent festivals and parades as well as visiting schools and children's hospitals. In 1988, Oscar Mayer launched its Hotdogger program, where recent college graduates were hired to drive the Wienermobile through various parts of the nation and abroad. There are currently six Wienermobiles in existence.

5. The Voxmobile

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In 1967, Warren Hampton of the musical equipment manufacturer Vox approached famous car customizer George Barris to build a Voxmobile guitar auto. His idea was to fabricate a custom roadster that would function both as a car and as a mobile amplifier, designed to be used for promotional purposes. The Voxmobile, released in 1968, features a Vox guitar silhouette that serves as a functioning amp capable of supporting up to 32 guitars as well as featuring a working Vox organ in the rear deck. In all, there are two main drive speakers mounted atop the intake manifold, five 12-inch speakers, one 18-inch bass speaker and four tweeters. The entire vehicle is worth $30,000 and is drivable.

6. The Spammobile

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This giant blue trolley drives all over the country giving out free samples of delicious Spam products. Inside, the vehicle only seats two passengers to accommodate mass quantities of canned ham and the electric griddle necessary for cooking Spamburgers. The license plate of the Spammobile reads "Spam37," the number 37 being a reference to 1937, the year Spam was invented.

7. The Peepster

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Much like the Spammobile, Just Born, the company responsible for marshmallow Peeps as well as Mike and Ikes and Peanut Chews, has a large bus that tours the nation. However, the Bethlehem, Pa-based candy company also has a smaller promotional vehicle—the Peepster. A bright yellow Volkswagen Beetle with a five-foot tall yellow marshmallow chick on top, the car can often be seen cruising around the tri-state area.

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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]