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Easter with... the Duracell Bunny?

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The Energizer Bunny was ripped off from a Duracell commercial? The outfits worn by Playboy Bunnies were the first patented work outfits?  No, you're not hallucinating due to a sugar high from all those chocolate eggs and jellybeans. Those facts are true! Here are more details, along with some other information about famous bunnies of the non-Easter variety.

Hef's Bunnies

The Playboy Bunnies who served as waitresses, hostesses, and photographers at the famous chain of gentlemen's clubs were Hugh Hefner's vision of the Perfect Woman, 1960s-style. She was sexy, yet exuded innocence; she had perfectly sculpted hair, healthy glowing skin, and cantilevered cleavage. The Bunny Suit (the first service uniform to be registered with the U.S. Patent Office) was constructed on a Merry Widow corset. Each club employed a full-time seamstress who custom-crafted the wardrobe of each and every Bunny. In order to assure an optimum costume adherence-to-curves ratio, Bunnies were forbidden to gain or lose more than one pound after being hired. The club manager would conduct a weigh-in before each work shift.

Recognize the Bunny above? It's future Blondie lead singer Deborah Harry!

Killer Bunnies

April 1979: Jimmy Carter's presidency had already been beleaguered by setbacks like the Energy Crisis and his admission that he'd committed adultery in his heart (but not with a cigar). So no one could fault the president for seeking solace in a solitary fishing trip near his hometown of Plains, Georgia. Of course, no matter how much privacy he craves, no sitting president is ever truly alone. In this case, several Secret Service agents and a White House photographer were keeping tabs on Carter in a nearby boat. Quite suddenly, what appeared to be an angry rabbit began swimming purposefully toward the President's boat. According to Carter, the bunny hissed loudly, with nostrils flared and teeth gnashing. Carter smacked his oar upon the water in an attempt to frighten the amphibious rabbit, and the bunny switched direction and paddled to shore. The photographer in tow had the presence of mind to snap a few pictures of the incident.

The whole thing might have remained a personal "fish story" for the few who witnessed the event, but Press Secretary Jody Powell unwisely recounted the tale while having lunch with an Associated Press reporter that August. In fact, Carter had barely recovered from the media onslaught of his "killer rabbit" story when 53 Americans were taken hostage in Iran. Ever the optimist, Carter still gamely ran for re-election in 1980.

Cereal Bunnies

General Mills launched Trix, the first fruit-flavored cereal on the market, in 1954. Five years later, Battle Creek's other cereal makers had come up with their own similar cereals in direct competition with Trix. The company turned to ad agency Dancer Fitzgerald Sample to give the brand an "identity," which arrived in the form of the Trix Rabbit.

Joe Harris, a member of the agency's creative staff, came up with the entire concept over a weekend "“ the character, the catch-phrase ("Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids!") and story boards for several commercials. The original voice of the Trix Rabbit was provided by Delo States, who also voiced Stanley Livingston in the Tennessee Tuxedo cartoon series. By the way, the Rabbit did finally get to eat a bowl of Trix in 1976, some 17 years after he first longed for the cereal that originally had just three flavors: raspberry red, lemon yellow and orange orange.

Perpetual Bunnies

Who knew that the Energizer Bunny was actually a knock-off? Such is the power of good ol' American advertising. Way back in 1973, Duracell launched an advertising campaign that compared its batteries to other brands by placing them inside a group of plush pink toy bunnies that played the snare drum. Of course, the bunny that beat his drum the longest was the one with the Duracell battery. That particular advertising campaign was launched worldwide and is still the de facto bunny in Europe and Australia.

In 1989, the Chicago office of the DDB Advertising Agency came up with a parody ad - featuring a "cool" sunglass-wearing pink bunny beating on a bass drum - to promote the long life of Energizer batteries. The Energizer Bunny took on a life of its own and was mentioned in everything from presidential campaigns (Seventy-two year old candidate Bob Dole compared himself to the Energizer Bunny) to TV theme songs (the lyrics to the theme for the final season of Roseanne mentioned "that rabbit with a drum"). Thanks to copyright laws and those execs who were too late to employ them, the Energizer Bunny is basically a North American icon, while Europe and Australia still associate drum-beating rabbits with "copper-top" Duracell.

Smart-Aleck Bunnies

Bugs Bunny was a product of the Warner Brothers Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies series of animated films. The 1939 animated short Hare-Em Scare-Em was technically the third appearance of the leporine character, but the first to depict him as a grey hare, rather than white, and also the first to mention his name "Bugs" (in honor of animator Ben "Bugs" Hardaway). Director Tex Avery came up with Bugs' catch-phrase "What's up, Doc?", which had been a popular slang greeting at the North Dallas high school he attended. Avery described his vision of Bugs to veteran voice actor Mel Blanc, who decided on a "Flatbush" accent for Bugs "“ a combination of Bronx and Brooklyn dialects. Blanc's characterization gave Bugs' "Ain't I a stinker?" and "Of course you know this means war!" remarks a certain cutting-edge snarkiness that made him an underdog hero to the masses who were feeling the weight of the world on their shoulders as the U.S. struggled to recover from the Great Depression.

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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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iStock
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

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]

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