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The Quick 10: 10 Publicity Stunts Gone Bad

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You’ve probably heard the old saying “any publicity is good publicity,” but these 10 stunts gone awry prove that’s not so.

1. A couple of days ago, two masked men wearing dark clothes ran through Dell’s headquarters in Round Rock, Texas, brandishing “small metallic items” and yelling at employees to go to the lobby. Although it ended up being an internal communications stunt gone awry – the execs were just trying to get everyone to the lobby for an announcement about their new tablet – two arrests were made and one man was charged with a misdemeanor for “interfering with public duties” when he refused to give up his coworkers’ identities. It’s definitely a stunt gone wrong when the SWAT team shows up, I’d say.

2. Can you imagine if someone knocked down Stonehenge just to ensure their name was remembered in history? That’s pretty much what happened in 365 B.C., when Herostratus burned down one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Temple of Artemis in Greece. It wasn’t supposed to work – authorities threatened to execute anyone who mentioned the arsonist’s name (he was also executed), but it did since that’s where we get the term “Herostratic fame,” which means fame achieved by any means just for the purpose of being famous.

3. This incident has been discussed to death, but it’s hard not to mention the Adult Swim bomb scare in a list like this. In 2007, small circuit boards depicting a character from Aqua Teen Hunger Force were placed in 10 cities across the U.S. to promote the movie based on the popular cartoon. Installed in high traffic areas, the boards would light up to reveal a Mooninite at a specified time. Instead, a citizen noticed one of the devices and called the police, concerned it was a bomb. In the end, it was the Boston police who received more bad publicity than Adult Swim or the Cartoon Network: bloggers ridiculed the bomb squad and even law enforcement in Seattle (one of the other nine cities targeted) said, “To us, they’re so obviously not suspicious … People don’t need to be concerned about this. These are cartoon characters giving the finger.”

4. That’s not the first time an entertainment industry PR stunt has scared citizens into thinking they were about to be blown to smithereens, though. Just a year before, devices that played the Mission: Impossible theme song were installed in newspaper racks in the L.A. area to promote the third installment of the Tom Cruise series. When some of them fell from the top of the box and landed on the stack of newspapers inside, panicked people called the police to report suspicious red boxes with wires. After the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department blew one up, they determined it was no threat.

5. As Herostratus showed us, PR stunts aren’t just modern-day affairs. In 1842, Honore de Balzac’s play opened to an empty house when his attempt to create a little excitement around the piece completely backfired. He spread the rumor that Les Les Ressources de Quinola was so amazing that the opening night was already sold out. Hearing that, his fans didn’t even bother trying to get tickets. Whoops.

6. It was an event that could have been similar to Great Molasses Flood of 1919: Snapple tried to make the world’s largest popsicle in Union Square in 2005. Unfortunately, the June day turned out to be a bit warmer than they had anticipated, and the 17.5-ton frozen treat melted, leaving a river of strawberry kiwi-flavored sludge flowing everywhere. Snapple later said that the popsicle had been designed to keep its shape for much longer, even in high temps, and they weren’t sure what went wrong.

7. If you’re putting together a scavenger hunt, here’s a tip: don’t put your grand prize in a historic cemetery. Dr Pepper learned that the hard way in 2007. They hid a coin in Boston’s Granary Burying Ground, the final resting place of Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, John Hancock and many others. The cemetery could have been ravaged by treasure hunters if it hadn’t been for Mother Nature – the day the clue was released that tipped players off to the coin’s general location, the cemetery was closed due to heavy ice. That was when officials there caught wind of the scavenger hunt and started one of their own: to find it before the cemetery re-opened so the hunt would be called off. They found it, all right – the coin had been tucked behind a piece of slate that covered the entrance to a crypt that was nearly 200 years old. Dr Pepper’s parent company, Cadbury Schweppes, apologized for the inconvenience.

8. Your PR stunt definitely fails if the cost of the stunt ends up being more than what you’re trying to promote. That’s what happened with the 1987 movie Million Dollar Mystery. The plot centered around a missing bag of cash which was still missing at the end of the movie. The hook? There was really a bag of cash hidden somewhere in the United States, and clues to its whereabouts could be found in specially-marked Glad-Lock bag packages. The movie barely made more than a million at the box office; when you factor in what it cost to make the movie, you can see that this one was a huge flop for everyone involved. Well, everyone except for the lady who found the cash hidden in the bridge of the Statue of Liberty’s nose, that is.

9. Involving people in a publicity stunt against their will? Usually a bad idea. Involving people against their will and making them late for work? Definitely a bad idea. Doing both of those things while inadvertently publicizing that your product sucks, then getting arrested? That’s pretty much a worst-case scenario right there, and it’s exactly what happened to the L.A. band Imperial Stars last October. They parked a van across lanes of traffic on the 101 Freeway in Hollywood, causing a massive traffic jam that couldn’t be diffused until a tow truck showed up since the driver ran off with the keys. Los Angelenos were enraged and even took to the band’s YouTube video to leave comments like, “your song is terrible, i listened to 10 seconds before I vomited.” (That was one of the nicer comments.)

10. Apparently French police don’t view Robocop as one of their own. When the movie’s sequel came out in 1990, an actor in the full-on Robocop outfit patrolled up and down the Champs-Elysees in an American squad car. When the real police showed up, he couldn’t produce I.D. and was promptly thrown in jail.

I want to share this one even though I’m not classifying it as a failure – it completely and utterly horrified me, which I think was the point: Living Chucky Dolls Invade Times Square.

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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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