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The Ad Council's Greatest Hits

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A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Only you can prevent forest fires. Take a bite out of crime. What do these slogans have in common? They are all public service announcements, or PSAs, and they are ingrained in our memories thanks to the Ad Council.

What is the Ad Council?

The Ad Council was formed in 1942 when a group of Madison Avenue advertising execs wanted to contribute to the war effort without actually leaving their day jobs. The result was a series of ads encouraging Americans to buy war bonds. They were so successful that President Roosevelt encouraged the organization to continue the program after the war had ended.

How does it work? A non-profit or government organization (such as the Boys Clubs of America or the Department of Homeland Security) approaches the Ad Council with a cause that needs support. The Council farms out the job to an advertising agency, which provides its creative and production work free of charge. The people that appear in PSA spots, whether celebrities or civilians, get no pay and no residuals for their work. The Council then approaches different media outlets "“ radio, TV and even the Internet "“ to get the ads placed (again, free of charge). The Ad Council requires that PSAs promote positive social change in such areas as the quality of life for children, preventative health, education, community well being, and environmental preservation.

Smokey Bear

In 1944 the Ad Council used a young bear cub who'd been rescued from a New Mexico wildfire as an icon to emphasize the dangers of playing with matches and leaving campfires smoldering. Originally called "Hot Foot Teddy," Smokey Bear became so popular that an estimated 95% of the U.S. population can finish the statement "Remember: Only You Can Prevent"¦" without prompting. The forest fire prevention campaign was so successful that many national parks now must employ the use of "prescribed burnings" "“ carefully controlled fires of moderate intensity "“ in an effort to help restore Nature's balance.

The United Negro College Fund

The United Negro College Fund was established in 1944 as a philanthropic fund to not only provide scholarships to students but also to help pay the operating costs of historically black universities. The UNCF received a major boost in fundraising when the Ad Council launched an aggressive PSA campaign in 1968 with the help of Young & Rubicam, who came up with the slogan "A mind is a terrible thing to waste." Thanks to the power of advertising, the amount of annual donations climbed into the millions beginning in the early 1970s.

Keep America Beautiful

The non-profit organization known as Keep America Beautiful was founded in 1953, but chances are the majority of Americans were unaware of the group's existence until the first PSA starring the "Crying Indian" aired in 1971. Iron Eyes Cody provided a powerful visual slap upside the head as an illustration of how throwing your Big Mac wrappers out of the car window was destroying the landscape. The fact that Iron Eyes Cody was actually an Italian-American gent named Espera de Corti shouldn't detract from the overall message. Litter is still ugly enough to make a grown man cry.

Don't Smoke

Back in 1967, the dangers of cigarette smoking were well known, but tobacco companies were still allowed to advertise on television. As a counterpoint to those ads which showed young, successful, average suburban adults happily puffing away, this PSA was meant to be a wake-up call and reminder of how children tend to imitate their parental role models.

Don't Do Drugs, Either

In the same vein as the "Like Father, Like Son" anti-smoking campaign, this 1987 PSA was aimed at the Baby Boomers who'd grown up smoking marijuana as casually as their parents had done with cigarettes. But the children of the Boomers were experimenting with drugs that were unheard of in the late 60s/early 70s, and this commercial was trying to nudge parents into realizing that "Guess what? Your kids know what pot smells like, so even if you only surreptitiously smoke it after they've gone to bed, they know what you've been up to, and the logic follows that if it's OK that Mom and Dad do drugs"¦."

Buckle Up

The U.S. hasn't cornered the market on PSAs. In fact, some of the ads broadcast overseas are far more graphic. Take, for example, this UK ad promoting the use of seat belts by passengers sitting in the back seat. (Warning for the squeamish: It's quite graphic -- watch at your own risk.)

Don't Screw Around in the Workplace

Canada's Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (similar to the U.S.'s OSHA) ran a very graphic series of PSAs demonstrating workplace accidents happening when least expected and under the most mundane of circumstances. (Again, if you're squeamish, this has a squicky ending.)

Don't Touch Blasting Caps

When I was a kid, Saturday morning cartoons were always punctuated with PSA warnings about the danger of blasting caps. Was there some sort of huge construction boom in the 1960s that made blasting caps such a pervasive threat? I don't know, but I do know that during my fetal months I fervently searched local vacant fields for tiny devices as shown on the commercials, but never found a single blasting cap.

Which PSAs have stuck with you throughout the years? Woodsy Owl? This is your brain on drugs? Or maybe a lesser-known ad ("What is pwedudice?"). Chime in with the public service announcements that have haunted you since childhood.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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