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The Man Who Pressed His Luck...and Won

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In 1984, ice cream truck driver Michael Larson set a record by winning $110,237 (a combined total of cash and non-cash prizes) in one appearance on the game show Press Your Luck -- and he did it by gaming the system. He had noticed that the Luck board did not rely on luck at all, but was actually running in five predictable patterns -- which he memorized over the course of six weeks, with the help of a VCR. By the time the show's taping was completed, everyone from the host to the contestants were mystified by Larson's amazing ability to avoid the Whammy (the squares on the board which would end the player's turn) and consistently win prizes. For Larson, there were indeed "No Whammies."

Larson's original appearance was aired as two episodes due to the length of his winning streak. Producers initially tried to avoid paying him, since his pattern-memorization might be considered cheating -- but eventually the producers relented, after determining that the official game rules did not prevent a player from reverse-engineering the game patterns. Indeed, producers later revealed in a documentary that they knew there was a weakness to the game (only having five board patterns without any randomness), but the weakness was ignored until Larson's famous performance. Furthermore, in order to get spins on the board, Larson had to answer trivia questions, which relied on his trivia skills.

The original Larson shows were aired in June of 1984, then were not seen again in their entirety for almost two decades. But they are on YouTube (recorded from the Game Show Network), along with a documentary about Larson's experience (the documentary also shows the great majority of the show video, along with extensive followup from everyone involved). Both will likely be removed at some point due to copyright claims, but if you get in now, you can see a rare part of game show history -- you can see how Michael Larson pressed his luck and won big.

The Larson Performance

Watch in amazement as the humble Larson goes on a winning streak. Pay particular attention to his focus, and how he often appears to celebrate a victory at the moment he strikes the button, rather than the moment the prize is explained to him -- indicating that he knows the pattern, and is happy when he successfully hits the button at the right time.

Below, the first episode ends with the player on the left holding his head in his hands.

Big Bucks: The Press Your Luck Scandal

And here's the complete documentary (in eleven parts) about Michael Larson, narrated by the show's host, Peter Tomarken. If you pick only one segment to watch, choose the sixth (I've noted it below).

This is the best part -- watch this next one for sure.

Epilogue

Wikipedia has an extensive narrative about what happened to Larson after his win. The short version is that he lost part of his money in a ponzi scheme, he lost part of it in a bizarre scheme involving $1 bills and a radio game show, and he lost the remainder when his house was burgled (he reportedly had $40,000 in $1 bills in the house). Two years after winning, he was working at Wal-Mart.

Larson eventually became involved with an illegal lottery scheme and lived his remaining years on the run from the law, eventually dying from throat cancer in Apopka, Florida in 1999 at the age of 49. It's a sad story -- read more about it at Wikipedia. There's also a good writeup of the whole story at Snopes, and Larson's story was discussed on an episode of This American Life.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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