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Is Cash Cab for Real? 7 Contestants Speak!

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If you're reading this post, you probably love trivia and game shows as much of the rest of us _flossers. So chances are you've watched at least one episode of Cash Cab on Discovery Channel, right? And chances are you've wondered whether it was rigged or not.

Well, the short answer is no, it's not rigged. The more complicated answer is: eh, sometimes sorta. Mixed in with my narrative below, you'll find seven first-person accounts I scooped off the Web to give you a clear understanding of how the show, er, rolls.

First of all, the cab is a real, licensed cab. While host Ben Bailey is actually a comedian, he HAS taken and passed the New York City cabbie exam and is a licensed cab driver. The money he hands out isn't real, but if contestants win, they're sent a real check after the show airs. (This is probably done for tax purposes so the network and the IRS can track the money, legally.) After the contestants agree to be on the show, a production assistant gets in and sits shotgun. He/she helps Ben along the route, though the questions are fed into Ben's earpiece as he drives.

So what about the contestants? Well, basically about ½ of them are pre-screened and about ½ are actually randoms off the street. In fact, if you look closely at the credits at the end, you'll notice the line: "Some contestants have been pre-screened prior to their appearance on the show."

So let's tackle those contestants first. Here are a couple excerpts from first-person accounts -- actual contestants talking about their experiences, most found over on Yelp.

Contestant #1

Basically, I was interviewed in Union Square Park for a show called "Show Me New York," which would feature New Yorkers of all walks of life talking about their favorite spots in the city. Awesome, right??? I wasn't sure why that show required a trivia quiz in the interview (maybe they didn't want anyone stupid on-air?), but I aced it. After 2 weeks of emails with the producers, I got my film date. My friend and I waited for a cab, which we were told would take us to Century 21 downtown, where we were going to film our segment. Except, when the cab pulled up....the obvious happened...

...I'm episode 45 if anyone is interested.

Contestant #2

I, too, was picked up in Union Square to be in this show! Same scenario as [contestant #1] and we had to fill out this ridiculously long survey which obviously meant nothing since it was fake. Alas, we frickin lost one block away from our destination and we didn't even think to use our street shout-out! I'm telling you, it's easy to say 'that's so easy, I could have been on the show", but when you're in that cab and those lights are all over the place and Ben Bailey's staring at you to answer the question, 30 seconds is just NOT enough time! I got a stupid shirt for playing (and losing) and every time I wear it to the gym someone has to comment. They say "hey! you were on the show! did you win??". And I always answer: I'm wearing this shirt. What do you think?" Guess that's the closest I'll get to being a celebrity - I'll take it! :-)

Contestant #3

My husband and I were recruited for a "smart" tourism show to talk about our favorite places in New York. They told us to get in a cab and meet them at the destination. Lights came on and you know the rest. Unfortunately, my husband and I disagreed on an answer. I deferred to him because I thought he was an expert on the subject, and my answer came from a dirty joke. Turns out I was right and he wasn't and out on the curb we went.

My street shout-out? We happened to pick someone who started cursing out the crew like a crack addict. Ben Bailey said that had never happened before. I don't know if this ever aired.

Contestant #4

I was on the show and although we had fun it is a scam! I met a rep after responding for an on-camera role for a "travel show" and after passing a current events oral exam (20 questions) I was told that I was what they were seeking. I was then informed that I was going to receive a call that would direct me to a location where I would be expected to speak about. At that point I knew something wasn't on the up and up but I figured what the hell...nothing ventured - nothing gained. Then they threw me an even weirder curveball, I was asked to bring one to two additional people along. When I inquired why - especially after they wanted to know my depth of topical news etc., they said that more people helped the shot. Being a NYC radio talk show host and on-camera host I was getting more leary {sic} about going through with a situation that got more bizarre by the day but I did. My plan was to simply tell them NO THANKS or go scratch depending on how funky the scenario was if I decided to pull the plug. My buddy and his girlfriend accompanied me and we did very well (1 wrong answer and we gambled on the grand prize and lost : (

Yes, I was disenchanted over the misrepresentation but I had some laughs and it made for compelling content...or at least that's what others told me. Buyer...or respondents BEWARE. ;

Contestant #5

So then what about the randoms who aren't pre-screened? There are many people out there talking about how they were picked up by the Cash Can, but the best example I could find was from a redditor, who had a lot to say, answering questions from other redditors. You can read the whole thread here, but below are some excerpts:

Yes, I couldn't tell it was the Cash Cab, but there was a 10 minute period after he hit the lights where they stopped, a PA came and talked to me, told me the rules, I signed a waiver, and continued, but that's entirely cut out. I had the chance to opt out, but I don't know if they would've still driven me. My guess is no.

Contestant #6

This person was very excited to be on.

Cash Cab is REAL!!! I was on it yesterday!!! I can't say if i won or lost, but BEN ROCKS!!!

Contestant #7

Another blogger raves...

My friend Kristian and I found ourselves stepping into quite a surprise today. I won't give away the details, since I want the show to remain successful, but hot sh*t was it a fun time!

And we won! We really did. There were a few close calls, of course. In fact, we got the first fucking question wrong! I was not pleased. But, in the end, we walked away with quite the pocket full of pennies. We even won the video challenge / double-or-nothing question at the end and doubled our score! I don't know when our episode will air, but rest assured, America's favorite bald spot will be seen on the Discovery Channel before too long. We couldn't have done it without the help of my friend Brian aka Taco Bull. He was our "lifeline" and he answered a question correctly for us!

Anyone have any experience with the show? Feel free to tell us about it below!

If you liked this post and want to keep up with all my writing, be sure to follow me on Twitter: @resila. And be sure to follow @mental_floss too for the latest on all our great content and amazing facts, 140-characters at a time.

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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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