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How One Man Gamed "The Price is Right"

Have you seen The Price is Right? I watch it at the gym, during the day, because I don't need to hear the sound to figure out what's going on. On the show, people guess prices for merchandise and play little games and eventually win or lose the merchandise. But one man, Terry Kneiss, watched a lot of The Price is Right. And he noticed something: many of the same products were used over and over. So he did his homework, and, in collaboration with his wife, memorized the values of as many items as he could. Then he went on the show, and proceeded to play while confirming his math via hand signals with his wife, who was in the audience. And when Kneiss got to the Showcase...his bid was accurate, to the dollar. This has not happened in the 38-year history of the show. A recent Esquire profile tells the inside story; here's a snippet:

The Price Is Right ends with the Showcase, the final showdown between the two players who have traveled from the audience to Contestant's Row, up onstage, through a pricing game, and past the Big Wheel. Two collections of prizes are presented to them, and the contestants each bid on one — the closest without going over wins. And if one of them comes within $250, that contestant wins both. Now, against all odds, Terry suddenly found himself standing beside an excitable woman named Sharon. It was down to them. The first Showcase opened with a karaoke machine. Next came a pool table. Then a seventeen-foot camper. Sharon passed on that Showcase, which meant that it was Terry's to win or lose. He looked into the audience for a moment, leaned into his microphone, and said his bid as though he were reading it from a slip of paper: $23,743.

"Wow," Drew Carey said. "That's a very exact bid." Then Sharon saw her Showcase: trips to Chicago; Banff, Alberta; Edinburgh, Scotland; and Cape Town, South Africa. She bid $30,525. "We'll be right back, folks," Carey said. "Don't go away."

And then the show just stopped.

Even before the Showcase, there had been a feeling among some of the show's staff that something was amiss. ...

... And then Carey remembers what happened next: "Everybody thought someone had cheated. We'd just fired Roger Dobkowitz, and all the fan groups were upset about it. I thought, f***, they just f***ing f***ed us over. Somebody f***ed us over. I remember asking, 'Are we ever going to air this?' And nobody could see how we could. So I thought the show was never going to air. I thought somebody had cheated us, and I thought the whole show was over. I thought they were going to shut us down, and I thought I was going to be out of a job."

Read the rest for a truly epic tale of how one man (well, actually a man and his wife) gamed the game show.

After the jump is a video clip of the showdown. The Esquire article (and the snippet above) speak to why Drew Carey seems so unenthusiastic about the situation: he thought there was no way this show would ever air.

(Via Kottke.org.)

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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