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Who Approved That? 7 Food Promotions Gone Horribly Wrong

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Have you heard about Burger King's new Texican Whopper? The taste of Texas and a little, spicy Mexican "“ and they do mean little. The ad for the new product ran only briefly in Spain and the United Kingdom before the Mexican government demanded it be pulled. Seems they don't like having their countrymen depicted as three-foot-tall wrestlers who wear the Mexican flag as a cape. A flop? You decide. The ad has been viewed about a half-million times on YouTube. Here are a few more promotions that didn't go the way the marketing gurus had planned.

1. McDonald's gives away free virus

You wouldn't normally expect McDonald's to run a promotion giving away free Trojans (Trojan viruses, that is). In Japan, McDonald's gave away 10,000 MP3 players, fully loaded with 10 free songs. Problem is, many of them were also loaded with a QQPass Trojan virus that captured user info and sent it to hackers as soon as it was plugged into a computer. That's 10,000 folks who weren't necessarily lovin' it.

2. Hell Pizza brings out the dead


This one's kinda creepy.

New Zealand-based chain Hell Pizza ran a Halloween ad on their website depicting the skeletal remains of Sir Edmund Hillary and Heath Ledger, just months after their deaths. The spot obviously drew complaints, but wasn't pulled until November 3rd "“ definitely enough time to associate Hell Pizza with a whole lot of bad taste.

3. Pepsi's ballgame blowout

Here's one that just happened. Earlier this month, Pepsi offered to give away 250 pairs of Yankee Stadium opening day tickets. But when the Pepsi reps showed up in Times Square, instead of the 250 pairs of the promised tickets, they showed up with just 100 sets, and most were for a game in June. As one would expect, this basically led to a mob scene, with angry fans yelling "Pepsi sucks!" and pouring cans of soda out on the street. Now is this the kind of hope they were talking about?

4. Domino's has their own bailout

dominos-bailout.jpgHave you noticed the recent trend of companies giving something back in these trying economic times? Car companies who suspend payments if you lose your job, restaurants that offer free food, and Domino's giving away pizzas to anyone that types in the code "bailout." Only problem is the promotion hadn't actually been approved before the code got out and 11,000 free pies were given out. Company reps blamed the error on a computer glitch, or hackers. But Domino's actually looked pretty good after this one for honoring the giveaway.

5. Everyone's a Pepsi winner in the Philippines

This is an honest mistake, but it's still pretty interesting. In 1992, Pepsi offered 1 million pesos to anyone finding a bottlecap with 349 printed on it. The problem"¦half a million bottlecaps got printed with 349, which would have cost 18 billion dollars. Pepsi ended up paying winners $19.00, which still cost them ten million dollars. Not only that, but bottling plants were attacked, and many Pepsi execs had to leave the country. And you thought Yankee fans could get angry.

6. McDonald's McAfrika Burger

mcafrika.jpgAlso in 2002, Norwegian McDonald's restaurants had the bright idea to name a burger after a place where millions of people were facing starvation. Reps said the McAfrika sandwich was based on an authentic African recipe, but that didn't stop many in Norway from accusing McDonald's of extreme insensitivity. McDonald's considered donating proceeds to famine relief, but ended up allowing relief agencies to place collection boxes in participating restaurants. I think that was the same year they considered the McTsunami filet-o-fish.

7. Carl's Jr's winning code goes viral


And finally, file another one under the "whoops" category. A recent Carl's Jr. online promotion for a free $2.75 "Famous Star" hamburger coupon went a little too viral. 276 winning contestants were texted a passcode and a 48-hour-only URL where they could download their coupon. And as the saying goes, they told two friends"¦who each told two friends"¦and so on"¦and so on. A day later, hundreds of websites were posting the URL and passcode, and the company had to shut down the promotion. Apparently viral isn't always a good thing. [Photo credit: Adrian Lamo.]

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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]