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The Quick 10: 10 Famous Neon Signs

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You've probably heard of the neon graveyard in Las Vegas "“ it's where a lot of the historic signs in town go to bite the dust after the hotel they advertised has been torn down. I've never been there, but it's on my To Do list the next time I'm in town. It's too bad the graveyard is just limited to signs from Sin City, though "“ there are scores of vintage neon signs that could have used a good home. Check out these 10 that used to brighten up city landscapes "“ or, in some cases, still do.

schrafft1. Schrafft's, Boston. Schrafft's was once a candy and chocolate company based in Charlestown, Massachusetts, that expanded to restaurants around the turn of the century. By the 1960s they had 55 restaurants that were so popular Andy Warhol designed a commercial for them. These days, all that's left of the company is their premium ice cream label and their famous scattered neon sign in Boston. The building it sits atop used to be a Schrafft's factory, but that closed long ago and is now an office complex. If you remember (and miss) Schrafft's, there's a bit of nostalgia here "“ the old storefront picture is really cool and there's also a recipe for Schrafft's butterscotch cookies.

2. Vegas Vic, Las Vegas. Vic has been keeping an eye on downtown Las Vegas since 1951. He used to reside on the side of the Pioneer Club building, but since the Fremont Street Experience opened in 1995, the building has been a souvenir shop (go figure). He was so popular that the company who created him made his cousin, Wendover Will, just a year later. Wendover Will actually beat Vegas Vic for the Guinness World Record title of "World's Largest Mechanical Cowboy," which makes you wonder how many there are.

3. Grain Belt Beer, Minneapolis. This landmark has been in Minneapolis next to the Hennepin Avenue Bridge since about 1940. It used to flash the letters in sequence, but the once-impressive neon sign has been dark for quite some time. It's up for sale, though "“ the Eastman Family, who owns the site the sign sits on, is looking for a buyer to restore and relight the sign. Any takers?

4. The Coppertone Girl, Miami. The giant emblem of a little girl losing her britches to a puppy first showed up in billboard-sized form on Biscayne Boulevard in 1959. It's been relocated a few times and sat in a warehouse for a few years in the "˜90s, but today she's proudly mooning people on Biscayne again, just down the street from her original location. She did receive a bit of a makeover, though "“ during her restoration in the "˜90s, her neon lights were replaced with LED.

5. The Skipping Girl Sign, Abbotsford, Australia. "Little Audrey," as she was once known, was originally set up to advertise the Nycander company's "Skipping Girl" brand of vinegar. When the factory was torn down in 1968, Little Audrey went with her. The public was outraged to have lost their landmark, so much that a replica was built and erected on a nearby building just two years later.

oregon6. Made in Oregon sign, Portland. When this sign first showed up in Portland in 1941, it advertised "White Satin Sugar" in the Oregon state outline for all of downtown to see. By 1950, the sign had changed to show the state filling up with sugar. In 1959, the owners of the building decided to advertise their product instead "“ White Stag Sportswear "“ and so the sugar was nixed and a white stag silhouette replaced it. The company added a bit of whimsy at Christmas by giving the stag a red bulb for a noise "“ something that has been repeated nearly every year since 1959. The White Stag company hasn't been in the building since the "˜70s, but the sign has since been declared a historic landmark. It received a little renovation in the "˜90s to advertise a gift retailing company called "Made in Oregon," which seemed appropriate and has stuck ever since. At least, so far. At the moment, there's no company paying for the sign's upkeep and electricity bill. The electricity was shut off last month and there's some talk of dismantling the sign.

7. Westinghouse sign, Pittsburgh. This is the neon sign to end all neon signs (actually, it was probably an argon sign, if we're being totally truthful). The sign included nine Westinghouse logos lined up all in a row, but each logo had 10 individual pieces that could light up by themselves without lighting up the rest of the logo: the four slants of the "W," the three dots on top of the "W," the bar underscoring the letter, and both the top and bottom half of the circle. You can see how the sign was animated here, but the real sign is long gone "“ when the building it was mounted on was torn down in 1998 to make way for the Pirates' PNC Park, the sign went with it.

8. Magikist sign, Chicago. You can bet a giant pair of neon lips would catch the attention of a lot of people "“ and that's what the Magikist carpet company was banking on, too. The 41,100-pound neon lips were regarded as Chicago landmarks, noting when you were finally out of the suburbs and into the city. Most of them have been quietly torn down since the mid "˜90s, though.

reno9. Reno arch, Reno, Nevada. Believe it or not, the neon Reno Arch has been stretching over Reno since 1899. The neon version, however, wasn't built until 1927, when it was created to celebrate the Reno Transcontinental Highway Exposition. It's been through several incarnations since then (the town is currently on arch #6) and in November of last year, the old bulbs were replaced by LED versions (a growing trend, it would seem).

10. The Travelers Insurance umbrella, Des Moines. The cheery 40-foot umbrella has been a staple on the Des Moines skyline since 1963. Like a lot of these old advertising signs seem to, it fell into disrepair for many years until the Graham Group, who owns the building the umbrella brightens up, took responsibility for it in 2005.

It seems like a lot of towns have nearly-forgotten gems like these. Is yours one of them? Or do you remember one that has since been torn down? Share in the comments!

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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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Creative Bar Owners in India Build Maze to Skirt New Liquor Laws
June 20, 2017
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Facing a complicated legal maze, a bar in the southern Indian state of Kerala decided to construct a real one to stay in business, according to The Times of India. Aiswarya Bar, a watering hole that sits around 500 feet from a national highway, was threatened in 2016 after India's Supreme Court banned alcohol sales within 1640 feet of state and country-wide expressways to curb drunk driving. Instead of moving or ceasing operation, Aiswarya Bar's proprietors got creative: They used prefabricated concrete to construct a convoluted pathway outside the entrance, which more than tripled the distance from car to bar.

Aiswarya Bar's unorthodox solution technically adhered to the law, so members of the State Excise Administration—which regulates commodities including alcohol—initially seemed to accept the plan.

"We do [not] measure the aerial distance but only the walking distance," a representative told The Times of India. "However, they will be fined for altering the entrance."

Follow-up reports, though, indicate that the bar isn't in the clear quite yet. Other officials reportedly want to measure the distance between the bar and the highway, and not the length of the road to the bar itself.

Amid all the bureaucratic drama, Aiswarya Bar has gained global fame for both metaphorically and literally circumnavigating the law. But as a whole, liquor-serving establishments in India are facing tough times: As Quartz reports, the alcohol ban—which ordered bars, hotels, and pubs along highways to cancel their liquor licenses by April 1, 2017—has resulted in heavy financial losses, and the estimated loss of over 1 million jobs. Aiswarya Bar's owner, who until recently operated as many as nine local bars, is just one of many afflicted entrepreneurs.

Some state governments, which receive a large portion of their total revenue from liquor sales, are now attempting to downgrade the status of their state and national highways. To continue selling liquor in roadside establishments, they're rechristening thoroughfares as "urban roads," "district roads," and "local authority roads." So far, the jury's still out on whether Kerala—the notoriously heavy-drinking state in which Aiswarya Bar is located—will become one of them.

[h/t The Times of India]