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The Quick 10: 10 Notable Happy Meal Toys

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It's been a long time since I've gotten a Happy Meal toy, but back in the day, I collected them like they were going to be worth millions some day. In fact, I recently spotted a Rubbermaid tote down in my parents' basement that has a strip of duct tape stuck to it reading "STACY'S COLLECTABLES" in my childish print. I didn't investigate, but I'm nearly positive it will make me independently wealthy at some point in my lifetime (mm-hmm"¦ considering that the most valuable Happy Meal toy is only worth about $20, probably not).

There have been some interesting toys included in the Happy Meal in its 31-year history "“ here are just a few of them.

1. Circus Wagon Happy Meal. The idea to make a kids' meal originated with one man's franchise, but it was such a hit that the company ended up adopting it (the same thing happened with the Egg McMuffin). The first "toy" that swept McDonald's across America was actually just the Happy Meal box, which was designed to look like a Circus Wagon. Kids were encouraged to collect all six boxes. Interestingly enough, the box included "real" toys as well, ranging from a stencil to McDonald's character erasers. But apparently McDonald's thought the thing kids would be excited about was the greasy cardboard box.


2. Some customers were upset in 1992 when their kids pulled out a cheeseburger, fries, and a figurine of a busty woman wearing a skintight catsuit. Because the Batman Returns was rated PG-13, parents were unhappy that McDonald's was promoting it to kids who were likely well under 13 years of age. McDonald's tried to downplay the incident by saying the toys were related to the then-53-year-old Batman character, not necessarily the semi-violent movie.

3. The 101 Dalmatians promotion was a pretty big deal because it actually featured 101 different toys. Because the toys were packaged in opaque plastic, kids didn't know which Dalmatian they were getting until after the meal was already purchased. I'm sure it was a marketer's dream.

4. Teenie Beanie Babies. Who doesn't remember this craze? Teenie Beanies cost $2 with the purchase of a Happy Meal, but actually paying for the toy didn't do anything to diminish the fad. It wasn't uncommon for a McDonald's to run out of the toy before the promotion was officially over, making a lot of kids (and their collector parents) unhappy.

5. American Idol toys. In 2007, McD's teamed up with the AI people to offer a line of toys that included super stereotyped wannabe Idol figurines, including Country Clay, Soulful Selma and Hippy Harmony. But the one that created a big stir was New Wave Nigel, who came sporting an outfit complete with a flowerpot hat nearly identical to the ones Devo made famous in the "˜80s. And it certainly didn't go unnoticed by Devo—they promptly sued. "They didn't ask us anything," said bassist Gerald Casale. " Plus, we don't like McDonald's, and we don't like American Idol, so we"˜re doubly offended."


6. Ice Age toys. Just last year, talking figurines from the Ice Age movie could be found amongst your child's dinner. That was a problem for at least one parent, who was pretty sure that the toy proclaiming "Everybody loves Sid," was really saying "Everybody loves ." McDonald's shrugged it off, releasing a statement that said, "The phrase featured in the Sid The Sloth Happy Meal toy was provided to us by FOX, directly from the film, which is rated PG."

7. Madame Alexander dolls. Madame Alexander, a company that makes high-end dolls, has partnered with the Golden Arches on several occasions to offer a series of mini-dolls, including one based on Wizard of Oz characters. The mix of high-end and Happy Meal just seems a little strange to me, but clearly it has been a popular promotion—another one is scheduled for this year.


8. Olympic Beach Balls. Back in the heyday of the 1984 Summer Olympics in L.A., McDonald's offered a bunch of Olympic promotional items, including a beach ball and puzzles. World-class athletes paired with greasy burgers and fries? What's the problem?

9. Story of Texas mini books. Occasionally throughout the Happy Meal's history, certain items are offered that are regional-only. These tend to be worth a little more than the nationwide promotions since their distribution was so limited. This includes Story of Texas mini books that were offered in "“ you guessed it, the Lone Star State "“ in 1986.

10. Four activity books from Disney films. Happy Meals had been around for nearly 10 years before Disney and McDonald's spotted this great cross-promotion idea—it wasn't until 1987 that the first Disney toys, four different activity books that featured various Disney movies, appeared in the kid's meal boxes. As I'm sure any child of the "˜80s and early "˜90s remembers, Disney teamed up with Ronald quite often after that. I think most of "STACY'S COLLECTABLES" consists of Disney Happy Meal toys. But those days are over—as of 2007, Disney had pulled out of McDonald's advertising, preferring to associate their characters with healthier ventures.

Do you recall a favorite Happy Meal toy from your childhood? I seem to remember being pretty excited about the Fraggle Rock cars (characters figurines driving veggie cars) and the 101 Dalmatians set, which I came nowhere close to completing. And go take a virtual tour of the Happy Meal Museum!

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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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