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5 Country Stars Who Got Fried in the Food Business

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By Bill DeMain

1. Minnie Pearl's Fried Chicken

In 1967, Nashville attorney John Jay Hooker convinced Grand Ole Opry comedienne Minnie Pearl that she could sell more drumsticks than Colonel Sanders. After all, Minnie Pearl seemed like the sort of lady who'd have a good family recipe for fried chicken. Unfortunately, she didn't. But that didn't stop Hooker from selling franchises.

Within no time, plans were in place for 300 restaurants and public stock was worth $64 million. Meanwhile, no one seemed worried that only five restaurants were actually operating and that no two franchises used the same chicken recipe. Regular customer complaints, combined with an SEC investigation into the company's accounting practices, meant that it wasn't long before the restaurants began hemorrhaging money. By late 1971, the last bird had been fried. Hooker spent decades living down the debacle, while Pearl continued to apologize to her fans right up until her death in 1996.

2. Twitty Burger

twittySinger Conway Twitty dreamed of a restaurant chain that would one day hawk Twitty Burgers—a hamburger topped with cheese, two slices of bacon, and a deep-fried, graham cracker-crusted pineapple ring. In 1969, Conway persuaded his friends to invest $100,000 in his cholesterol-rich scheme. But the Twitty Burger never found its audience, and mismanagement led to the chain's swift demise.

When Conway decided to repay his investors, he deducted the $100,000 as a business expense on his tax returns. (Another bad idea.) The IRS soon caught wind, and Twitty wound up in court. Lucky for him, he was assigned to Judge Leo Irwin, an amateur singer with a soft spot for country. Not only did Irwin allow Twitty to keep the money, but after he read the verdict, he sang a song he wrote entitled "Ode to Conway Twitty."

3. PoFolks

restaurant3When singer Whisperin' Bill Anderson visited PoFolks in 1981, he had lawsuits on his mind. After all, the restaurant chain had swiped the title of his biggest hit and the name of his road band. But the owner's hospitality—combined with all the fried food—weakened Anderson's resolve. By the end of the meal, he'd agreed to become PoFolks' national spokesman. As Anderson did PoFolks commercials and even became a partner in several franchises, the chain's prospects grew. He even convinced his pal Conway Twitty to become an investor (apparently the Twitty Burger debacle didn't faze him). At its height, individual PoFolks restaurants were grossing $2 million a year. But careless expansion took its toll, and by 1989, PoFolks was headed for the PoHouse. The chain rebounded in 1991, but without Anderson. Today, a handful of restaurants remain, mostly in Florida.

4. Kenny Rogers Roasters

ken-rogIn a Seinfeld episode called "The Chicken Roaster," Newman gets Kramer hooked on chicken from Kenny Rogers Roasters. "The man makes a pretty strong bird," Newman says. True enough. Founded in 1991 by Rogers and former KFC owner John Brown, Jr., the Roasters' menu featured wood-fired rotisserie chicken. By 1995, the chain had grown to 350 restaurants worldwide.

While Rogers was an affable spokesman, he didn't know his brand. In 1997, on Late Night with Conan O' Brien, Rogers failed a blind taste test, choosing chicken from the NBC cafeteria instead of his own. That may have been a sign. The company filed for bankruptcy a year later, meaning that Kenny didn't know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.

5. Jimmy Dean Sausages

jimmy-dean-sausageJimmy Dean Sausage was a hit from its first sizzle in 1969. Most manufacturers at the time made sausage from old sows and chilled the pork before shipping it. But the country music star had a different vision. Jimmy Dean decided to use only top hogs and package the product while it was still warm. The tender, juicy result went on to gross nearly $60 million a year.

While running the company with his brother, Dean pitched his product on TV, singing of sausage "from the whole hawg, not just the leavin's." Amazingly, those leavin's didn't go to waste, either. The inner skins were donated to burn treatment centers, while the outer skins were fashioned into coats for Dean's spin-off company, Pigskin. Other spare parts were turned into cat food. But trouble soon surfaced in hog heaven.

The company expanded too fast, and unsophisticated accounting practices and manufacturing equipment couldn't keep up. When the stress started taking a toll on Jimmy Dean's health, he sold the company in 1984. Despite the change in ownership, Jimmy stood by his product and kept his job as pitchman for another 20 years.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

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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]