The Late Movies: Holiday Inn's "Mark" Campaign

Today's edition of The Late Movies is not sponsored by Holiday Inn, but you probably couldn't tell the difference. When I worked in advertising, I used to cut out, photograph, record, and download ads and commercials I enjoyed. This Holiday Inn campaign featuring comedian Ross Brockley, which I recently found on an old laptop, was one of my favorites.

The campaign, called "Mark," was launched by Fallon in March of 1999.

A 2000 Brandweek article described Mark as "a 37-year-old slacker who lives with his family and argues that kids should stay free when his parents ask him to pay rent."

According to IMDb, Brockley was in a movie last year called RSO [Registered Sex Offender.] He played the ex-roommate. He also played a character based on himself in the 2004 Sarah Silverman/David Cross web series Pilot Season. (Here's a clip.)

I don't know much more about Brockley, so here's a little Holiday Inn history: Kemmons Wilson opened the first Holiday Inn in Memphis in 1952. By the end of that decade, he owned an exploding chain of franchises.

But Holiday Inn isn't exactly the great American brand you might think it is. In 1988, the (British) brewers of Bass started buying up Holiday Inns. The company eventually got out of the beer business and switched its name to Six Continents PLC, which later morphed into InterContinental Hotels Group, which has its headquarters in Denham, Buckinghamshire (outside London) and currently owns all Holiday Inns.

In 2001, Mark and the campaign moved into the Holiday Inn to promote their business services.

I'm going to start calling people "e-thinkers."

Here's Mark working on his book, When the Wheels Come Off. This one's my favorite.

There may have been more ads in this series, but that's all I had on my hard drive. Rock on, brothers and sisters.

Reader MJM has pointed us to Ross Brockley's blog, 'Brockley Farmaceuticals.' He's an organic farmer in Nebraska.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
Original image