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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
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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