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A Brief History of Flintstones Vitamins

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The Flintstones has been off the air and in syndication since 1966. But Flintstones Vitamins remain on the shelves and in homes.

Meet the Flintstones

The Flintstones were, just like the theme song claimed, a modern Stone Age family.

Fred and Wilma Flintstone and their best friends and next-door neighbors, Barney and Betty Rubble, lived in working class suburban splendor in the city of Bedrock. Wilma was the consummate housewife, rocking “pearls” with her cavewoman-style dress and using a baby elephant as a vacuum cleaner; Fred, her lovable lug counterpart, worked at a local quarry and enjoyed bowling. A baby dinosaur, Dino, was the family dog and a sabertooth tiger, Baby Puss, the family cat. Later, little Pebbles Flintstone and Bamm-Bamm Rubble joined the cast.

But despite the fact that it was a cartoon and featured more rock-based puns than your average adult-oriented sitcom, The Flintstones was not originally for kids. In fact, when it premiered on ABC in 1960, it took the Friday night, 8:30 to 9 pm slot, and was meant to be a kind of Stone Age Honeymooners. And it was popular — but mostly with teenagers. This, according to the Museum of Broadcast Communication, heralded a shift away from live-action children’s programming towards animation.

The Merchandising

The show’s popularity with kids logically gave rise to a vast collection of Flintstones merchandising — alarm clocks, cookie jars, trading cars, bubble gum, toys, and, of course, vitamins.

Though they’ve obviously been around forever, vitamins, meaning a group of organic substances necessary to the function of a normal metabolism, were “discovered” by science in the 18th and 19th centuries. By the middle of the 20th century, however, vitamins had been removed from scientific study and placed squarely in the realm of commerce. Vitamins in pill form, a 20th century invention, were peddled not by medical personnel, but by retailers, such as grocery giant Kroger.

Vitamins were also high profit items, with a market ready for diversification. In 1960, the vitamin giant Miles Laboratory, owners of the One-a-Day label, developed Chocks, the first chewable vitamin aimed at children. And, even as doctors, Food and Drug Administration officials, and scientists tussled over the alleged medical benefits of vitamins, Miles was making a mint off its candy-like chewables.

With a hold on the children’s vitamin market, it wasn’t surprising, therefore, that the company would choose to pair up with one of the most popular children’s shows at the time. In 1968, Miles paired up with the modern Stone Age family, producing chewy vitamins in a variety of flavors and in the shapes of the characters.

The Flintstones were a solid, trustworthy lot who kids believed in and the vitamins were pretty much an instant hit. Miles Laboratory, which later introduced Bugs Bunny vitamins as well, dominated the children’s vitamin category for years, until it was acquired by Bayer as a subsidiary in 1979. Though Miles was no more, Flintstones Vitamins remained a market leader — and still are, though new characters like SpongeBob SquarePants and crew are starting to crowd in on the action. Nowadays, there are seven varieties of the flavor and vitamin-packed cartoon shapes: Flintstones Sour Gummies, Flintstones Gummies, Flintstones Complete with Choline (Choline, a nutrient found in breast milk and, of course, cauliflower, is good for brain development), Flintstones Plus Extra C, Flintstones Plus Calcium, Flintstones Plus Iron, and My First Flintstones.

Perhaps some of the explanation for the Flintstone Vitamins continued success is in their nostalgia for the generations of children who grew up with them — and who are now parents themselves. There’s even a Facebook group for those who ate the vitamins as a kid. And then there’s that jingle — “Ten million strong and growing!” — which, incidentally, was composed by Martin O’Donnell, the same guy who composed the music for the intensely popular Halo video game series.

Betty’s Not a Vitamin

But there was one great injustice underlying the Flintstones Vitamin empire: Nearly all the Flintstones characters — including the bizarre Martian character, Great Gazoo — all at one time had fruity, chalky likenesses. All, except Betty. Poor Betty, destined to always play second fiddle to Wilma, didn’t even warrant her own vitamin.

There were (at least) two possible reasons why Betty didn’t have her own vitamin: First, manufacturers claimed that Betty’s waist was too thin and kept breaking during production. Second, Betty was virtually indistinguishable from Wilma.

Though there was a small Betty for vitamin movement, including an Atlanta rock band that called itself Betty’s Not a Vitamin, it wasn’t until actress and comedienne Rosie O’Donnell, who played Betty in the 1994 live action film, brought Betty’s plight to the attention of the nation that anything was really done about it. O’Donnell, during a television interview about the film, complained that all the other characters were represented, but not Betty. A savvy marketing agency seized the opportunity to involve the consumer in the direction of the brand and launched a nationwide campaign to determine Betty’s fate. The agency set up prehistoric style voting booths in regional shopping malls across the country, as well as a 1-800 number, to allow consumers to decide whether Betty should be let in the club.

The public didn’t let her down. More than 3,000 kids and their mothers voted in person and more than 17,000 calls were logged, with 91 percent in favor of bringing in Betty. She became a character in December 1995, replacing the Flintmobile.

Notably, Betty’s Not a Vitamin was named one of the 100 best band names by Paste magazine.

Yabba Dabba Doo!

And finally, vitamins weren’t the only things that the modern Stone Age family hawked. In fact, one of the show’s original sponsors was Winston cigarettes: Fred and Barney were Winston men, all the way. One early cartoon featured Fred and Barney taking a “Winston break,” because “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should.”

While the Winston ads weren’t so much a problem, people later objected to the Flintstones pushing drugs, even if they were multivitamins. The concern there was that commercials for Flintstone Vitamins were misleading in terms of the actual health benefits of the vitamins. Miles Laboratory, in the early 1970s, was forced by FDA and Federal Trade Commission scrutiny to pull away from advertising during children’s programming, such as the Saturday morning cartoons hours.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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