CLOSE
Original image

The Evolution of Mr. Potato Head

Original image

by Megan Wilde

It started as body parts you jabbed into real potatoes and became a cultural phenomenon, resulting in some sweet film roles and government work. Let’s go back to the beginning.

1949: A Spud is Born

Brooklyn-born toy inventor George Lerner tries to capitalize on kids who like to play with their food. Surprisingly, Lerner’s idea of creating face and body parts that can be jabbed into potatoes is a hard sell. Toy companies worry that parents who’ve just lived through World War II-era food shortages will balk at the thought of wasting perfectly good food.

1952: The Tuber Spreads

Hasbro sees the genius in Lerner’s product and agrees to market it, creating the first-ever TV ads for a toy. It turns out that parents have few misgivings about squandering their potatoes; more than 1 million Mr. Potato Heads sell that year alone.

1950s: Family Man


Mr. Potato Head gets an arranged marriage. In 1953, Hasbro outfits him with an instant family: Mrs. Potato Head, son Spud, and a daughter, Yam. He also gets a car, a boat, and a kitchen in the deal. Within a few years, the likable Spud makes friends with pals Katie the Carrot and Pete the Pepper.

1964 and 1974: Attack of the Rotten Potatoes

When parents complain about finding moldy potatoes under their kids’ beds, Mr. Potato Head ditches his organic body for a plastic one. Ten years later, new rules about choking hazards compel Hasbro to merge the head and body into one legless lump.

1980s: Fries on the Side

Arnold Schwarzenegger and the President’s Council on Physical Fitness give him an award for abandoning his couch-potato lifestyle. Curiously, his new healthy habits don’t stop Mr. Potato Head from endorsing Burger King, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Hardee’s.

1992: A Spokesspud is Born

Mr. Potato Head trades his dapper hat for a green baseball cap and exchanges his loafers for blue tennis shoes. In keeping with his new, sportier look, he also quits smoking in 1987 for the American Cancer Society’s Great American Smokeout. To show his support for the anti-smoking campaign, he publicly hands over his signature tobacco pipe to U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.

1995: Supersized

Mr. Potato Head makes his big-screen debut in Toy Story, but his most prestigious gig is yet to come. In 2000, Mr. Potato Head becomes the official travel ambassador for Rhode Island, “the Birthplace of Fun,” where Hasbro is headquartered.

And let’s hear it for some of the best special edition Mr. Potato Heads: Optimash Prime, Tony Starch, Luke Frywalker, and Taters of the Lost Ark (known in some sets as Idaho Jones).

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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!

Original image
quiz
arrow
Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
Original image
SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES