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Hadacol, the Last of the Medicine Shows

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Advertiser-supported entertainment is nothing new. Since medieval times, people could see free entertainment right in their hometown as long as they listened to a sales pitch for dubious remedies along with the singing, dancing, and side show acts. Sales of snake oil and other patent medicines paid for the show and then some. Like other forms of traveling entertainment, the medicine show lost its luster when people gained the opportunity to go see movies instead. The medicine show had one last hurrah during the 20th century in the form of Hadacol.

240LeBlancThe story of Hadacol is the story of Dudley LeBlanc. A born entrepreneur, LeBlanc put himself through college in Lafayette, Louisiana by running a clothes pressing business. Then he put four brothers and two cousins through college as well. LeBlanc sold shoes, tobacco, patent medicine, and funeral insurance. He also ran a funeral home, which benefitted greatly from insurance sales. LeBlanc served as state senator and in the Louisiana Public Service Commission. In 1932, he ran for governor of Louisiana against Oscar Allen, who had the support of Huey Long. It was a particularly nasty campaign that LeBlanc lost. He also ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1944 and 1952. LeBlanc served as state senator for four non-consecutive terms between 1940 and his death in 1971. In the midst of his political career, he also made millions selling Hadacol.

LeBlanc ran into some trouble with the FDA over the patent medicines he was selling in 1941. Rather than deal with defending products that weren't all that profitable, he stopped making Dixie Dew Cough Syrup and Happy Day Headache Powders. Then he came up with something better. The story LeBlanc told was that he was suffering from pain in his big toe, and the only doctor who could help him wouldn't share the recipe for the medicine he used. So LeBlanc stole some from an inattentive nurse and research the ingredients on the label. From that information, he developed Hadacol. The name was short for Happy Day Company, with an L for LeBlanc. However, many years later when someone asked how he named the drug, LeBlanc said "Well, I hadda call it something."

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Hadacol was a mixture of vitamins B1 and B2, iron, niacin, calcium, phosphorous, honey, and diluted hydrochloric acid in 12% alcohol. The alcohol content wasn't all that high, but the hydrochloric acid meant it was delivered through the body faster than it would be otherwise. The mixture really made people feel better, although it wasn't a cure for the many diseases it was advertised for: high blood pressure, ulcers, strokes, asthma, arthritis, diabetes, pneumonia, anemia, cancer, epilepsy, gall stones, heart trouble, and hay fever. And that was only the beginning.

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What made Hadacol a success was LeBlanc's advertising ingenuity. He explored ways to promote his product that took the public by surprise -and worked. He kept supplies low in some pharmacies to create demand. He paid people for their testimonies, which sometimes crossed the line to ridiculous.

"Two months ago I couldn't read nor write. I took four bottles of Hadacol, and now I'm teaching school."

200hadacol-adHadacol was everywhere, on radio, on billboards, in newspapers and magazines, and at the local pharmacy. It was even sold in liquor stores and bars. People paid $3.50 for a 24-ounce bottle even if they had no food in the pantry. The hope for a better tomorrow trumped common sense in those days, just as it does now. LeBlanc pushed Hadacol on his radio show, which he broadcast in French. He published a medical pamphlet extolling the wonder of his elixir. He gave away swag featuring the name Hadacol on it, including water pistols and a comic book for children with stories drawn from glowing testimonies. LeBlanc wrote a jingle called "The Hadacol Boogie" which was recorded by several artists including Jerry Lee Lewis. He gave out Hadacol tokens, good for 25 cents off a bottle. LeBlanc had to expand his factory, then build more factories. Hadacol use spread from Louisiana across the nation. Millions of bottles were sold every year.

240hadacolboogieThe Food and Drug Administration objected, not to Hadacol itself, but to LeBlanc's claims that it cured cancer, epilepsy, asthma, and other diseases when it clearly did not. Wanting to avoid trouble, LeBlanc pulled those claims, but the damage was done. The new health claims were vague, but he couldn't do anything about the testimonies consumers gave. Without specific diseases, Hadacol became a cure-all for whatever people hoped it would cure. And no matter what was wrong, the medicine made people feel better -and that was all that mattered. LeBlanc instigated rumors that Hadacol was good for sexual potency, a tip that was slyly alluded to in the medicine shows. Hadacol was said to be recommended by doctors, although the only doctor named was Dr. L.A. Willey, who later turned out to be a Californian convicted of practicing medicine without a license. To enlist doctors for endorsements, LeBlanc offered free samples and a payment for each patient a doctor could recruit for research.

250_300hadacolparadeIn 1950, LeBlanc took the show on the road. The Hadacol Caravan of 130 vehicles played one-night stands throughout the South. Thousands of people paid admission with Hadacol box tops each night and enjoyed entertainment from Carmen Miranda, Mickey Rooney, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, and other big names. The band played, chorus girls danced, circus acts performed, and LeBlanc sold millions of bottles of Hadacol. the caravan then headed west and recruited the talents of Groucho Marx and Judy Garland. In 1951, LeBlanc toured using a 17-car train called the Hadacol Special. The shows featured bicycle giveaways, beauty contests, and clowns selling Hadacol. Jack Dempsey, Milton Berle, Jimmy Durante, and Cesar Romero joined the show, which played for a month straight in Los Angeles. Hank Williams played the final act of the show and brought people to their feet every night.

190hadacolgoodforAt the time, Hadacol was the second biggest advertiser in the US, right after Coca-Cola. As the caravan headed east, there were hints that all was not well with LeBlanc financially. The company head was spending more in advertising than he was bringing in. He announced that he was selling the company to the Maltz Cancer Foundation, but would stay as a sales manager. The actual buyers included Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon who ran a "private research project." Then news then came that LeBlanc was in trouble with the IRS. The caravan tour laid off some performers, then cancelled before the end of the schedule. Some performers were stranded without pay. The group that bought Hadacol was stunned to find how far in debt the company was, and declared bankruptcy even before paying the entire $8 million selling price to LeBlanc. Still, LeBlanc had the last laugh, as the company's debts were no longer his. Later that year, LeBlanc appeared on Groucho Marx' TV show You Bet Your Life. Marx asked him what Hadacol was good for. LeBlanc quipped "It was good for about"¦ 5 and a half million dollars for me last year."

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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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