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Not-So-Famous Firsts: Ads for Feminine Products

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Do you remember the first time you saw a live model wear a brassiere on a television commercial? It might not have been as long ago as you think. Join us for a quick look at some not-so-famous TV firsts of the womanly persuasion.

I Dreamed I Was Headless in My Maidenform Bra

Until the mid-1980s, the National Association of Broadcasters Code Authority had to approve each and every television commercial before it hit the airwaves. One of their more archaic rules (especially in an era when Lynda Carter was running around during prime time in a barely-there bustier) stated that any live models in bra commercials had to be fully clothed. If the offending undergarment was displayed on a mannequin, the dummy had to be either headless or armless or (best case scenario) both. By 1987, NABCA had relaxed its regulations slightly and left the lingerie issue up to each network to decide whether it was corrupting America's morals on a case-by-case basis. Playtex hit the ground running on May 4 of that year by airing two different Cross Your Heart commercials (one called "Glitter" and one entitled "Weekend") during daytime programming, the first time bras were seen touching the actual flesh of live humans on the boob tube.

Courteney Calls It What It Is

Feminine hygiene product commercials got the go-ahead from NABCA in 1972, long before lacy unmentionables were allowed.

The first tampon brand to advertise on television was Rely, which started airing ads in two test cities (Rochester, NY, and Fort Wayne, IN) in July 1975. When Proctor and Gamble wasn't bombarded with protests for their audacity, Playtex quickly followed suit with competing commercials. (Rely was taken off the market in 1980 after its super-absorbent components were linked to Toxic Shock Syndrome.)

The first person ever to utter the word "period" in a TV commercial when discussing a product made for that purpose was future Friends star Courteney Cox, who dropped the "p-bomb" several times in this 1985 Tampax ad:

Clear Results in Just Two Hours!

The rationale for the home pregnancy test was not a matter of convenience (and saving the cost of a doctor's office visit) for the woman, but a response to the heightened awareness of the importance of pre-natal care. If a woman could test at home as soon as she suspected impending motherhood, she could head to an ob-gyn earlier in the pregnancy and find out if she needs to, say, stop knocking back martinis during her afternoon canasta games. Warner-Chilcott got FDA approval for its e.p.t. (Early Pregnancy Test) in 1976, followed shortly by Accu-Test, Predictor and Answer. Once e.p.t. was fine-tuned so that it was simpler (only half a dozen easy steps!) and faster (results in only two hours!) it became the first home pregnancy test to advertise on television.

What Else Can It Do?

It seems like toenail fungus and erectile dysfunction commercials have been airing on TV since the Eisenhower Administration, but the FDA didn't actually lift the ban on direct-to-consumer prescription drug advertising until 1997. Even though some of the ads get pretty specific in explaining the drug's main purpose (like little gross mucous monsters infiltrating your lungs), commercials for birth control pills to this day remain rather coy as to their ultimate purpose.

Ortho Tri-Cyclen was the first contraceptive pill to buy television time (the company spent $13 million in 2000 for a six-month campaign). Ortho-T had also received separate approval from the FDA as an acne treatment, so that angle was hyped in commercials to make the product more palatable to the viewing public. In the original campaign, all the featured couples were married so that the one mention of unwanted pregnancy wouldn't be interpreted as support for promiscuity. More recent commercials for products like Seasonale and Yaz emphasize the empowerment a woman gets by controlling her monthly cycle as well as relief from PMS symptoms and blemish-free skin. The baby-prevention side-effect of the Pill is almost reduced to a footnote.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]