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The Stories Behind Curiously Named Products

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John Barry, the CEO of WD-40 Company, Inc., passed away recently at the age of 84. He didn't invent the degreaser/rust preventative, but he turned it into a household name. When Barry joined Rocket Chemical Company in 1969, one of his first orders of business was to change the name of the company. "We don't sell rockets, we sell WD-40." At the time, employees were selling the product out of the trunks of their cars; Barry's name change finally identified the company with the product, and within one year sales increased to $2 million. The company posted $317 million in sales in the most recent fiscal year.


About that name"¦Norm Larsen, the man who concocted the formula, was trying to create a spray that repelled water and prevented corrosion. The "WD" stands for Water Displacement "“ the basic purpose of the product. It took Larsen many experiments and trial runs before he found the perfect formulation on the 40th attempt. So that name makes perfect sense in retrospect, and it made us wonder if other similarly-named products also had logical explanations behind their monikers"¦

Heinz 57 Varieties

HEINZYou've probably noticed the tiny pickle logo on bottles of Heinz ketchup that boasts "57 varieties." As versatile as the company may be, they don't actually manufacture 57 varieties of ketchup. In fact, when Henry Heinz came up with that slogan, he didn't know off the top of his head how many different products his namesake company made (counting pickles and baby food as well as ketchup, the total was over 60 at the time). He was riding a New York train one day in 1892 and browsing at the advertising placards mounted on the ceiling. One in particular caught his eye "“ a store that offered "21 styles of shoes." The idea of promoting the vastness of your product line struck Heinz as genius, and he chose the number 57 for personal reasons (those close to him at the time suspected it had to do with his interest in numerology and the occult).

Preparation H

Prep-H

Stand-up comedians and Austin Powers would have us believe that, much like WD-40, Preparations A through G were failures and H was the winning formula. However, that's not the case. In fact, this case is far more complex, while the name is ultimately simple.

Once upon a time, there was an over-the-counter "cure-all" in a tube called Sperti Ointment. (If you're old enough, you may remember Grandma always treating your cuts, scrapes and burns with Sperti Ointment.) George Sperti patented several inventions while still an undergrad at the University of Cincinnati, and despite tempting offers from large corporations, he remained at UC after graduation and founded a research laboratory on campus. While researching cancer treatments, Sperti discovered a cell derivative to stimulate healthy-cell growth and used it in the healing ointment that eventually bore his name. One of the main active ingredients in his formula was live yeast cell derivative, which the FDA eventually banned due to clinical testing irregularities. The ointment minus the LYCD was re-packaged as a hemorrhoid treatment called Preparation H. The H stands for hemorrhoid, supposedly a reminder for old-school consumers not to spread the gel on their chapped lips. (By the way, Canadian and European tubes of Preparation H still contain LYCD, and is the stuff that fashion models spread on their faces to avoid wrinkles and under-eye bags.)

Product 19

product-19

This toasted corn, oat, wheat and rice Kellogg's cereal has always been promoted as being packed with multiple vitamins and minerals "“ perhaps a total of 19 such supplements? Nope. It was the 19th new product the company introduced to the market that year.

Absorbine Jr.

absorbine
Yes, Virginia, there really is an Absorbine Senior. Absorbine Veterinary Liniment was invented in 1892 by Wilbur Fenelon Young as a rub-down for horses to reduce swelling and stiffness after a workout. Farmers and trainers are not immune to achy muscles, so it stands to reason that they eventually tried using Absorbine on their own painful areas, despite the harsh aroma and the initial stinging when applied to the skin. Wilbur eventually caught wind that humans were using his product, so he developed a kinder, gentler (and better-smelling) version which he dubbed Absorbine Jr.

Formula 409

409When it comes to stick-to-it-ivity, that WD-40 guy has nothing on Detroit's Morris D. Rouff. Rouff and his brothers were partners in Gem Products, a company that manufactured industrial cleaning supplies. In their search for the ultimate heavy-duty alkaline product that would be useful for industrial applications with heavy de-greasing needs, it took no less than 409 different formulations before they hit upon the perfect mix. Rouff eventually sold his industrial cleaner to Chemsol, who in turn cranked the mixture down a notch for residential use.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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