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Not-So-Famous Firsts: Halloween Edition

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Whether you're taking some little ones out trick-or-treating or going to an adult party dressed as a radish, we join you in the spirit of Halloween and offer up a few not-so-famous firsts related to the holiday. Oh, and please have your kids save their Necco Wafers, Good 'N Plenty, Circus Peanuts and other "ick" candies for my dad, who never met a sweet treat he didn't like!

First Costume of the Costume King

If you grew up in the 1960s, 70s or 80s, you're no doubt familiar with the $2.95 Halloween costumes-in-a-bag that featured an illustrated smock and a plastic mask. Those mass-produced costumes were manufactured by Ben Cooper Inc., a Brooklyn, New York, company founded in 1937. The trick-or-treating for candy tradition was gaining serious steam at the time due to the Great Depression, and Cooper (a theatrical costume designer with a keen business sense) capitalized on the trend by producing inexpensive costumes fashioned in the likenesses of popular characters of the era. His crack legal team purchased the licensing rights first to several Disney characters, and then Spiderman, the first Marvel character to be thusly immortalized in reflective plastic. During the next 50 years everyone from Farrah Fawcett to the Beatles to Rubik (of Cube fame) to the various Smurfs were represented in the Ben Cooper line. As for the company's founder, the very first Halloween costume he ever wore was a little Devil suit at the tender age of seven.

First Visit by the Great Pumpkin

It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown was first broadcast on October 27, 1966, on CBS (it pre-empted My Three Sons). It was nominated for an Emmy award and has been re-broadcast every year during the Halloween season since. Charles Shulz was pleased with the positive response to his cartoon with one exception: thanks to Charlie Brown's trick-or-treat lament "I got a rock," bags and boxes and mountains of candy were forwarded to his studio from all over the world earmarked for Charlie Brown. The Great Pumpkin TV special was, of course, inspired by Schulz's daily comic strip; the first mention of the benevolent Halloween gift-bringer was mentioned in the October 26, 1959, Peanuts strip.

First Incident of Tainted Candy

Rumors about razor blades and other sharp objects found inside random apples and candy bars are as old as the tradition of trick-or-treating, but in actuality there had been no official reports of random candy tampering anywhere in the United States. That is, until October 31, 1974. That was the night that Timothy O'Bryan of Deer Park, Texas, returned from trick-or-treating and was viewing his "loot" on the living room floor of his family home along with his sister and a few friends. Timmy's dad, Ronald, announced that it was bedtime and each child could have one piece of candy before retiring. At the ruge of his father, Timmy chose a jumbo sized Pixy Stix, and after a few mouthfuls he complained that it tasted bitter. Ronald fetched Timmy some Kool-Aid to wash down the bad flavor. Moments later, Timothy began vomiting and convulsing. His parents rushed him to the hospital, but he died en route. An autopsy revealed not only that Timothy had died of cyanide poisoning, but that the poison had come from the Jumbo Pixy Stix in his trick-or-treat bag. Area parents panicked at the news and an exhaustive police investigation was launched to find the home that was allegedly distributing tainted candy. The evidence eventually pointed to Ronald O'Bryan, who was heavily in debt and had recently taken out sizable insurance policies on his children. Child killers rank very low in the prison hierarchy, so The Candyman (as he was derisively nicknamed by his fellow Death Row inmates) had to be kept in protective custody for nearly 10 years before his execution on March 31, 1984.

First Trick-or-Treat Charity

To be honest, in my youth I saw more orange UNICEF collection boxes on TV Public Service Announcements than I ever saw in the real-life hands of my fellow trick-or-treaters. (That doesn't mean that I didn't know a few unscrupulous children who called out "Trick or treat for UNICEF!" while begging in an attempt to scam some spare change.) The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) was created in 1946 as a way to collect donations to provide for emergency relief of children in countries that had been devastated by World War II. Six years later Mary Emma Allison, a minister's wife in Philadelphia, was concerned by the inherent "greediness" in collecting candy from strangers and aimed to somehow turn trick-or-treating into a selfless act of charity. She'd recently seen UNICEF posters soliciting donations in order to provide powdered milk to malnourished children overseas. Allison enlisted her husband to announce a humanitarian alternative to collecting candy on Halloween – he urged church members to have their children use the specially decorated milk containers provided to collect pennies and nickels for UNICEF. That first year the Allisons' effort netted $17, which they sent off to UNICEF along with a detailed explanation of how the money had been collected. Three years later UNICEF actively began promoting the "Trick or Treat for UNICEF" program and provided millions of orange collection boxes to trick-or-treaters across the U.S. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson officially declared October 31st to be "UNICEF Day" in the United States.

First Prime Time Network Appearance of KISS

Maybe it's just me, but the wise-cracking centerpiece of Hollywood Squares never really cried out "Halloween!" But on October 29, 1976, The Paul Lynde Halloween Special was broadcast on ABC. The mind-boggling-ness of this show can be described by the guest stars: Margaret Hamilton (Wizard of Oz's Wicked Witch of the West), Billie Hayes (H.R. Pufnstuf's Witchiepoo), Betty White, Roz Kelly (Happy Days' Pinky Tuscadero), and Donny and Marie Osmond. Somewhere in the grand scheme of things they sandwiched in heavily painted hard rock band KISS, who'd achieved a measure of success on the radio the previous year with their live version of "Rock and Roll All Nite" and who were promoting their latest album, Destroyer. "Beth" had just recently entered the Billboard Top 10 (a first for the band), so the band figured a network TV appearance would help to accelerate the momentum instigated by the single and would help sell more albums. Young hecklers in the audience need to remember that back in 1976 there was no MTV or major national outlet for musical artists other than talk shows, variety shows and network specials, and even then the spots were limited and up-and-coming rock bands weren't at the top of any guest coordinator's agenda.

Feel free to share any and all of your Halloween memories, whether it be the time your mom dressed you in an embarrassing costume or the neighbor that actually distributed toothbrushes instead of candy. Oh, and BOO!

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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