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Cartman's Favorite Snack & Other Fictional Products That Became Real

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In honor of South Park’s 15-year anniversary, the world will finally have the opportunity to watch the show while munching on their very own bag of Eric Cartman’s favorite snack – Cheesy Poofs.


The orange, synthetic cheese-based treats will be handed out at this year’s Comic-Con and will be sold in retail stores soon.


That got me thinking about a few other retail items that made their way off of the large and small screen and into real life homes:

Brawndo, Stay-Puft and Brian Fantana's Favorite Scent

If you’ve seen the film Idiocracy you know that Brawdo is “The Thirst Mutilator” that has “what plants crave.” At least that’s the slogan. The movie shows us, of course, that plants really have no desire for the electrolyte-packed chemical concoction.


If you crave it, however, it can be your’s thanks to Omni Consumer Products – which is also responsible for bringing you Ghostbusters’ Stay Puft Marshmallows and Anchorman’s Sex Panther Cologne (“60% of the time it works every time.”)

The Red Swingline Stapler
Apparently Mike Judge’s films are great candidates for this, because his cult classic Office Space is also responsible for helping to launch a new product. Well, re-launch a product, actually. At the time that the 1999 film hit theatres, Swingline did not sell the red stapler that the film’s office nerd Milton so cherishes. The version used in the film had been painted by one of the film’s prop masters. But after three years of repeated requests, Swingline finally released a new red version of their stapler – so that to this day basement-dwelling office outcasts everywhere can cherish one of their very own.

Wonka Products
Roald Dahl’s 1964 book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and its 1971 film adaptation gave birth to an entire universe of delectable candy creations: the Wonka Bar, the Scrumdiddlyumptious Bar, the Everlasting Gobstopper. So, it was really only a matter of time before they sprang into life and started appearing on real store shelves. The only catch being, of course, that at present time no one has developed a candy that never gets any smaller or loses its flavor. So the Gobstoppers you can pick up in the store are just your ordinary everyday jawbreaker that, while definitely long-lasting, are far from everlasting.

Butterbeer
The days of new Harry Potter big screen releases may be behind us, but your Butterbeer nights can go on. All you have to do is visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park in Orlando, where they sell a version of the magical beverage. If you can’t get there, you can whip up your own at home, thanks to the Food Network.

What did we miss? What other movie and TV products have you seen – or really, relay want to see – in stores?

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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