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A Brief History of the 1947 Chocolate Candy Bar Strike

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The year was 1947. World War II had come to an end, and nations across the globe were rebuilding. For Canada, that meant a return to free market capitalism after years of government-mandated freezes on wages and the price of goods and services. Looking to recover from nearly a decade of thin profit margins, companies began to raise the price on everything from vegetables to automobiles, sending inflation through the roof, and putting a crunch on everyone’s pocketbooks.

When kids in the small town of Ladysmith, Vancouver Island, British Columbia wandered down to the Wigwam Café on April 25, 1947, they were surprised to find that the nickel they’d saved from their allowance would no longer buy the candy bar they craved. The price of chocolate had gone up 60 percent, quite literally overnight, from 5 cents to 8 cents for a 3-ounce candy car.

Rather than accept the price increase, the kids decided to do something about it. They hastily scrawled signs, and began marching up and down the street, singing an impromptu protest song:

We want a 5 cent chocolate bar
8 cents is going too darn far
We want a 5 cent chocolate bar
Oh, we want a 5 cent bar

Word spread quickly and soon nearly every kid in town had joined the “Chocolate Bar Strike.”

After the local paper snapped a picture of the little protesters in front of the Wigwam, kids across Canada began picketing their own corner stores carrying signs that read, “What this country needs is a good 5 cent bar!” and “Candy is dandy, but 8 cents isn’t handy!” One of the biggest protests occurred on April 30, when 200 kids marched on the steps of the British Columbia capitol building, shutting down government business for the day. In Burnaby, traffic was clogged for two hours as kids paraded on their bicycles down a major thoroughfare. Ten kids blasting bugles led 60 classmates in a march on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill. Five hundred sign-carrying students from three area high schools gathered at the Christie Pits Park in Toronto. The movement continued with additional protests in Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Montreal, Quebec City, and throughout the Maritimes, with police being called out to break up the larger gatherings. In all, over 3000 kids were said to have signed pledge cards promising to boycott candy until the price was brought down. Within days, the sale of candy bars in Canada had dropped 80 percent.

For the most part, adults saw the Chocolate Bar Strike as an amusing but profound metaphor for their own struggles with the new post-war economy. Many adult-led community organizations supported the candy strike by printing protest signs and pledge cards, bringing snacks for the kids on the frontlines, and by standing with the youngsters as they rallied against price gouging.

Naturally, candy companies defended the higher price, saying they too were feeling the pressure of post-war inflation. For them, raw materials such as milk, sugar, and cocoa bean processing had become more expensive since the government price freezes had been lifted. They also tried to convince customers that they were simply following the American market, where candy averaged between 5 and 10 cents for the same size bar; Canadian kids had it good at only 8 cents.

The movement continued to gain momentum until May 3, when a planned march on Toronto, meant to be the biggest protest yet, was thwarted by a story in the Toronto Evening Telegram. An anonymous source had informed the newspaper that the entire candy strike was being orchestrated by the National Federation of Labour Youth (NFLY), an organization that helped establish labor unions in Canada. While they were one of many groups to support the kids, NFLY had members affiliated with the Communist Party, which led the ultra-conservative Telegram to propose they were nothing more than a front for Moscow:

“Chocolate bars and a world revolution may seem poles apart, but to the devious, Communist mind, there is a close relationship. They don’t realize it, but the indignant students parading with their placards demanding a 5 cent candy bar have become another instrument in the Communist grand strategy of the creation of chaos.”

The paper claimed that NFLY was recruiting from the ranks of the kids, as well as using the children to further their own communist agenda. In a 2003 interview, NFLY co-founder Bill Stewart refuted these claims; the group simply wanted to encourage kids to speak out when they felt they’d been wronged. 

Whether these allegations were true or not, the candy boycott was now painted red.  Wary of being labeled “Communist,” supportive organizations disowned the strike, and parents forbade their children from attending any further protests. The candy strike fizzled, and the price of a chocolate bar remained 8 cents.

In The Five Cent War, a documentary about the candy strike, surviving members of the original Ladysmith protesters were interviewed about their part in the 1947 boycott.  Everyone agreed that communism was the furthest thing from their young minds.  All they wanted was for their voices to be heard, and to keep a little more allowance in their pockets.

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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]