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A Brief History of Zubaz

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Longtime readers know that we here at mental_floss aren’t afraid to tackle the big issues. Politics. Religion. Science. And today we’ll bring that fearlessness to another hot-button issue: Zubaz. Let’s take a look at the history of the hottest zebra-striped pants of the early 1990s.

When we think of Zubaz today, “utilitarian” probably isn’t the first word that pops into our heads. However, friends Bob Truax and Dan Stock actually had a practical purpose in mind when they created the garish pants. Truax and Stock owned a Minnesota gym that was popular with bodybuilders. The bodybuilding clientele had a problem: the hardcore weightlifters couldn’t find pants or shorts that comfortably fit their massive thighs while offering the flexibility they needed in workouts. In 1988 Truax and Stock began brainstorming a new kind of shorts for the heavy-lifting man.

The pair developed a comfortably baggy pair of shorts with an elastic waistband, and their bodybuilding customers and friends quickly became hooked on the roomier duds. They named the shorts “Zubaz,” a take on the '70s street slang “zooba” for “in your face.” The duo also cleverly made their shorts in loud, distinctive, day-glo patterns—the classic zebra-stripe pattern was one of the first Zubaz prints—that matched the company’s slogan, “Dare to Be Different.”

With a Little Help From the Road Warriors, J.C. Penney and Female Inmates

The men started doing a pretty brisk business selling Zubaz out of their gym solely on word-of-mouth hype. When it came to promotion, Truax and Stock had a pair of aces up their gaudily printed sleeves: wildly popular professional wrestling tag team the Road Warriors were partners in the designers’ gym. Road Warrior Hawk and Road Warrior Animal looked right at home in Zubaz; the flashy pants meshed well with their trademark face paint and spiked shoulder pads. Then, Zubaz caught another break: after a J.C. Penney manager saw a fan sporting a pair of Zubaz at a hockey game, the department store chain began distributing the brand nationwide.

The actual production of the early pairs of Zubaz sounds a tad farfetched. Truax and Stock were buddies with several corrections officers who worked at Minnesota prisons, and when the guards heard the bodybuilders needed a workforce to stitch their increasingly popular shorts, they had a suggestion: hire female inmates to do the work. Thus, early pairs of Zubaz were the products of convict labor.

50,000 Pairs a Week

As Zubaz’s national reach expanded, so did the brand’s star power. Dan Marino became the most famous name to endorse the brand, but supermodel Claudia Schiffer also pulled on Zubaz for a series of ads. The brand’s growing popularity led to a growing product line that included longer pants and caps printed in professional sports’ teams colors. Eventually the brand was moving an eye-popping 50,000 pairs of Zubaz a week.

Of course, Zubaz popularity wasn’t as enduring as Truax and Stock probably hoped. Although Zubaz sold over nine million pairs of pants and pulled down around $160 million in sales during the early 1990s, the pants didn’t quite end up becoming a timeless classic. Truax and Stock sold their shares of the company in the early '90s, and by 1996 the business was bankrupt.

Zubaz Redux

After Zubaz went belly-up in 1996, Truax and Stock reacquired the trademark. They sat on the concept until 2007, when they launched a line of new Zubaz as a novelty product aimed at retro-minded young men. According to a 2008 Minneapolis Star Tribune profile, the partners decided to keep the venture small by mostly selling on the Internet, out of a shop at the gym Stock owns, and at a few Minnesota sporting goods stores. The Zubaz.com webshop currently offers pants, shorts, hats, sunglasses, and ties.

If you're a baseball fan looking for an excuse to come out to the ballpark, several Major League teams are holding Zubazpalooza events. Get a ticket and a pair of Zubaz for around $35.

As one might guess, a large portion of the revitalized Zubaz brand’s customers were old devotees whose Zubaz had met similarly mysterious fates. As Heron Marquez Estrada of the Star Tribune wrote, “As word of the return of Zubaz has spread, Stock and Truax report getting a lot of inquiries from men who bought the pants -- often in their favorite pro team colors -- 20 years ago, and then their wives ‘lost’ them.”

This post originally appeared in 2011.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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