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7 (More) Outrageous Items Spotted at the 99¢ Only Store

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As long as the 99¢ Only Store continues to restock its shelves with bizarre merchandise, this post will continue to be a once-a-year feature. If you missed last year's, take a stroll over here. However, this year's finds are far superior and far more bizarre.

Take, for example, exhibit A)

While this might seem like a normal doll + accessories set, the sort of doll that gets washed up on the beach in Miami, that you avoid like a Man o' War, take a look closely at the translated copy on the front of the package:

dollfineprint
Forget for a moment the grammar and sentence construction -- what on earth is this kind of copy doing on the front of the package? Isn't it the pitch the toy company uses in their collateral when they're trying to get distributors to sell the stuff?

On to exhibit B. I just couldn't help but smile that they were calling this a nuisance mask. Beyond that, take a close look at the copy:

dustmask
It reads: "Protects against non toxic shop & household dusts, powders and initanst." After a few minutes of pondering, I decided initanst must be irritants, with some substitution and rearranging. What do you guys think???

dustclose

Okay, here's exhibit C. I actually had to research this online because I couldn't get a feel for how this worked just by looking at the package. So the basic idea, as I gather now, is that you put the plastic fangs in your mouth, and then the candy, which starts to foam. The effect must be something like saliva coming from the vampire's mouth. Here's the copy I found online, btw: "Yummy tart powder candy that literally makes you foath (sic) at the mouth!"

foamingatthemouth

Exhibit D is just so off, I can't believe it. What brilliant marketing mavens thought this up? Iron Man Bubble Bath? Are you serious? Wha???



ironman

Exhibit E is beyond me, too. I've seen plenty of lollipups for real, actual dogs, but for kids? Not sure why kids want lollipops shaped like dog biscuits, but there you go.

lollipups

Exhibit F is alarming. Never mind that it's just strange to want an eyeball in a superball, scroll down to the next picture and dig the warning label on the package (yes, this is a toy for kids).
eyeballmain



eyeballcloseup

The warning on exhibit G made me laugh out loud. What do you suppose the good folks at Laser Pet Toy have against students?

laserpet
What about you all? What's the most unusual thing you've found at the discount store near you?

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