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6 Times The Onion Had People Completely Fooled

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The site Literally Unbelievable showcases normal people on Facebook who have been duped by satirical articles from The Onion. But every now and then those misunderstandings have real world consequences.

1. "Study Finds Every Style of Parenting Produces Disturbed, Miserable Adults"

Last year The Onion ran this article, in which the very real Californian Parenting Institute was "quoted" about a "study" they did that found that no matter your parenting style, it produces unhappy adults. The article quoted lead researcher Daniel Porter as saying:

“Despite great variance in parenting styles across populations, the end product is always the same: a profoundly flawed and joyless human being."

As the article was passed around the internet and lost its attribution, parents who read it became concerned. The real-life organization was inundated with calls and emails, and even some people who worked there thought the satirical blurb was real, asking the executives when the study had been conducted. The Institute was finally forced to send out a press release stating the obvious: good parenting can lead to great things for kids and adults.

2. “Congress Threatens To Leave D.C. Unless New Capitol Is Built”

In 2002, the Beijing Evening News mistakenly reran this Onion article as fact. Thanks to the gaffe, their circulation of 1.25 million people thought that, like an unhappy sports team, Congress was threatening to leave the District of Columbia unless a new, improved Capitol building was built.

The Onion's article included the mocked-up blueprint for the proposed new building and fake quotes from then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert like, “The hard reality is, [the Capitol building is] no longer suitable for a world-class legislative branch. The sight lines are bad, there aren't enough concession stands or bathrooms, and the parking is miserable.”

When informed that the article was a spoof, the editor of the newspaper was surprised, telling Reuters that the reporter who covered the story was “pretty reliable.” The editor also said he would have to check to make sure the story was false, but if it was he was “sure there would be some form of correction.”

3. “Harry Potter Books Spark Rise in Satanism Among Children”

Back in 2000, people weren't as familiar with The Onion. This led to mass confusion over an article that some insist is accurate to this day. The "Harry Potter is Satanic" fear, if not started by The Onion, was hugely fanned by it. The original article, with the paper’s classic blend of completely over the top satire, talked about how the books were introducing kids to Satan.

The article claimed to quote children who had been introduced to magic through the books:

“Harry Potter books showed me that magic is real, something I can learn and use right now, and that the Bible is nothing but boring lies.”

“Hermione is my favorite, because she's smart and has a kitty," said 6-year-old Jessica Lehman of Easley, SC. "Jesus died because He was weak and stupid.”

It also quoted “High Priest Egan of the First Church of Satan in Salem, MA”:

“Harry is an absolute godsend to our cause. An organization like ours thrives on new blood—no pun intended—and we've had more applicants than we can handle lately. And, of course, practically all of them are virgins, which is gravy.”

These fake quotes were themselves quoted for YEARS in chain emails and on sites like WorldNetDaily as proof that 20 million children were worshiping the devil thanks to indoctrination by some entertaining young adult literature. The claim became so widespread that finally J.K. Rowling herself was forced to weigh in on how absurd it was.

4. “Conspiracy Theorist Convinces Neil Armstrong Moon Landing Was Faked”

In 2009, two separate Bangladesh newspapers reprinted this story about the moon landings being faked. The Daily Manab Zami, the largest circulated tabloid in the country, and New Nation were both forced to apologize after they ran an article about Neil Armstrong holding a press conference after he realized the moon landings he participated in never actually happened.

Armstrong is quoted as crediting conspiracy theorists for his epiphany:

“It took only a few hastily written paragraphs published by this passionate denier of mankind's so-called 'greatest technological achievement' for me to realize I had been living a lie.”

According to BBC News, the editors of both papers admitted they had never heard of The Onion before and issued a retraction. One editor said, “The truth is that Neil Armstrong never gave such an interview. It was made up. We are sorry for publishing the report without checking the information."

5. “Planned Parenthood Opens $8 Billion Abortionplex”

Possibly the greatest article confusion was over Planned Parenthood's alleged $8 billion "Abortionplex.” The article included such gems as a banner reading “No Life is Sacred” and quotes from PP’s president:

“The Abortionplex's high-tech machinery is capable of terminating one pregnancy every three seconds…That's almost a million abortions every month. We're so thrilled!”

The article went viral, in part because of how many people thought it was real. So if you read the article in May of 2011 during the debate over the funding of Planned Parenthood, and you weren't familiar with The Onion, it might be a tiny bit understandable if you got confused.

But sadly, even after the article became famous for being fake, people are still getting duped. In February of 2012, a Congressman (or one of his staffers) posted it on his official Facebook page. John Fleming, a Republican Congressman from Louisiana, linked the article on his wall with the comment “More on Planned Parenthood, abortion by the wholesale.” News outlets covered the gaffe and the post has since been removed.

6. "Congress Takes Group of Schoolchildren Hostage"

This last example isn't quite like the others. In September of 2011, a pair of tweets from The Onion caused a minor panic in Washington. Without linking to the satirical article it was referencing, The Onion tweeted, “BREAKING: Witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside Capitol building.” A second tweet sometime later that said “BREAKING: Capitol building being evacuated. 12 children held hostage by group of armed congressmen #CongressHostage” also failed to link to the article. Finally, a third tweet gave the game away, linking to a short blurb about Congressmen taking children hostage in the Capitol and threatening to shoot one per hour until they received $12 trillion in cash.

The Onion’s tweets resulted in an investigation by Capitol police regarding the legality of posting such comments on Twitter. They also released a statement assuring the public it was not true and that “conditions at the U.S. Capitol are currently normal.”

Main image credit: Flickr user Afraid of Ducks

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


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]