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11 Defunct Drugstore Chains

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I grew up on Cunningham Street, and it was a cruel slap of encroaching old age when the person I was giving my address to over the phone didn't know what I meant when I replied "Just like the drugstore" when she asked me to spell "Cunningham." (Of course, I later felt even more ancient when telemarketers didn't understand my Richie Cunningham reference.) What was your neighborhood corner drugstore Back In The Day, and is it still around?

1. Cunningham's Drugs

Cunningham's Drugs opened in Detroit, Michigan, in 1889 and eventually became the state's largest drug store chain. They expanded into a few other states as well, but hard times befell the chain, and the last remaining Cunningham's – all located in Florida – were shuttered in 1991.

2. Perry Drug Stores

Perry opened its first store in 1957 in Pontiac, Michigan, and in fact bought the struggling Cunningham's chain in 1985. Perry branched out into the auto parts business and eventually opened 200 Auto Works stores in eight Midwestern states. Perry was bought out by Rite Aid in 1995.

3. Arbor Drugs

Yet another Michigan behemoth, Arbor was at one time the eighth largest drugstore chain in the US. In 1979 it became one of the first pharmacies to computerize its records and link all the stores together electronically. They even had Patty Duke's TV dad, William Schallert, as their avuncular spokesperson. Scandal erupted in 1993 when Arbor was accused of overcharging Blue Cross to the tune of $17 million. The case was eventually settled out of court and CVS bought the chain five years later.

4. Big V Drugstore

Big V originated in Windsor but soon became one of the largest chains in Ontario, Canada. Several innovations helped spur their popularity: their stores were located in neighborhoods, not exclusively in shopping malls (like rival Shoppers Drug Mart, which finally usurped them); the aisles were carpeted which made for a quiet, more "professional" atmosphere; and they were open on Sundays, unlike most retail outlets in Ontario.

5. Phar-Mor

Based in Youngstown, Ohio, Phar-Mor had just over 300 stores at its peak in the early 1990s. No less a sales giant than Sam Walton once stated that Mickey Monus, Phar-Mor's founder, was the only retailer he feared. Unfortunately, Monus' momentum came to a screeching halt in 1992 when he was charged with embezzlement and ultimately convicted on 107 federal counts of fraud.

6. Revco Discount Drug Stores

At one time Revco (the name stood for Registered Vitamin Company) operated 2,500 stores nationwide. But in 1983 the company faltered when its store brand vitamins were blamed for causing the deaths of a number of premature infants. Then management invested heavily in non-core merchandise, such as TV sets and furniture, which proved to be a sales dud and major financial setback. CVS purchased the chain in 1997.

7. Rexall Drugs

In 1902, a businessman named Louis Liggett purchased 40 independent drug stores and formed the United Drug Stores cooperative, which sold products under the name Rexall (a play on the Rx abbreviation used for prescriptions). After World War II, he turned Rexall into a franchise arrangement, where independent retail outlets could pay a fee and use the Rexall name and sell its products. By 1958 Rexall had 11,158 stores in the US, making it the nation's largest drug store franchise. Rexall was the victim of a hostile takeover in 1985 and the company slid into an immediate and severe decline.

8. Fay's Drugs

The first Fay's Drugs opened in Fairmount, New York, in 1958. The store was named after founder Henry Panasci's wife, Faye, but he left the "e" off of her name to save money on the sign. By 1995 Fay's was the largest "super drug store" chain in the Northeast. From the beginning, Fay's suburban locations offered adjacent paved, lighted parking, which was something of a "perk" at that time. JC Penney bought Fay's in 1996.

9. Happy Harry's Discount Drugs

When Harry Levin opened his first store in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1962 it was called Discount Center. His smiling visage and friendly service caused his regular customers to nickname him "Happy Harry," so when he opened his third store in 1965 he re-christened his fledgling chain. At the time of Harry's passing in 1987 he had 75 stores spread across Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Jersey. The chain was purchased by Walgreens in 2006.

10. K & B

Gustave Katz and Sydney J. Besthoff founded their pharmacy empire in New Orleans, and many residents of the Big Easy still describe anything colored a particular shade of violet as "K & B purple," due to the iconic color of the chain's signs, employee uniforms, cash registers, etc. Rite Aid bought the Gulf Coast chain in 1997.

11. Eckerd

Despite a name that sounds like something being dislodged from deep in your throat, Eckerd was once the fourth largest drugstore chain in the US. In 2004 the publicly traded company was broken up into many smaller pieces and was either sold to or merged with everyone from JC Penney to Brooks Pharmacy to Rite Aid to Walgreens.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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]