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10 of the Most Expensive Typos in History

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NASA

Typos can be embarrassing. They can also be costly. And not just for those individuals whose jobs depend on knowing the difference between “it’s” and “its” or where a comma is most appropriate. In 2013, bauble-loving Texans got the deal of a lifetime when a misprint in a Macy’s mailer advertised a $1500 necklace for just $47. (It should have read $497.) It didn’t take long for the entire inventory to be zapped, at a loss of $450 a pop to the retail giant. (Not to mention plenty of faces as red as the star in the company’s logo.)

Google, on the other hand, loves a good typing transposition: Harvard University researchers claim that the company earns about $497 million each year from people mistyping the names of popular websites and landing on “typosquatter” sites … which just happen to be littered with Google ads. (Ka-ching!)

Here are 10 other costly typos that give the phrase “economy of words” new meaning. 

1. NASA’S MISSING HYPHEN

The damage: $80 million

Hyphens don’t usually score high on the list of most important punctuation. But a single dash led to absolute failure for NASA in 1962 in the case of Mariner 1, America’s first interplanetary probe. The mission was simple: get up close and personal with close neighbor Venus. But a single missing hyphen in the coding used to set trajectory and speed caused the craft to explode just minutes after takeoff. 2001: A Space Odyssey novelist Arthur C. Clarke called it “the most expensive hyphen in history.”

2. THE CASE OF THE ANTIQUE ALE  

The damage: $502,996

A missing ‘P’ cost one sloppy (and we’d have to surmise ill-informed) eBay seller more than half-a-mill on the 150-year-old beer he was auctioning. Few collectors knew a bottle of Allsopp’s Arctic Ale was up for bid, because it was listed as a bottle of Allsop’s Arctic Ale. One eagle-eyed bidder hit a payday of Antiques Roadshow proportions when he came across the rare booze, purchased it for $304, then immediately re-sold it for $503,300.

3. THE BIBLE PROMOTES PROMISCUITY

The damage: $4590 (and eternal damnation)

Not even the heavenly father is immune to occasional inattention to detail. In 1631, London’s Baker Book House rewrote the 10 Commandments when a missing word in the seventh directive declared, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Parliament was not singing hallelujah; they declared that all erroneous copies of the Good Book—which came to be known as “The Wicked Bible”—be destroyed and fined the London publisher 3000 pounds.

See Also: 11 Smells That Are Slowly Disappearing

4. PASTA GETS RACIST

The damage: $20,000

A plate of tagliatelle with sardines and prosciutto would typically only be offensive to a vegetarian’s senses. But an unfortunate blunder in The Pasta Bible, published by Penguin Australia in 2010, recommended seasoning the dish with “salt and freshly ground black people.” Though no recall was made of the books already in circulation, the printer quickly destroyed all 7000 remaining copies in its inventory.

5. JUAN PABLO DAVILA BUYS HIGH, SELLS LOW

The damage: $175 million

Online trading was still in its relative infancy in 1994, a fact Juan Pablo Davila will never forget. It all started when the former copper trader—who was employed by Chile’s government-owned company Codelco—mistakenly bought stock he was trying to sell. After realizing the error, he went on a bit of a trading rampage—buying and selling enough stock that, by day’s end, he had cost the company/country $175 million. Davila was, of course, fired. And Codelco ended up filing suit against Merrill Lynch, alleging that the brokerage allowed Davila to make unauthorized trades. Merrill coughed up $25 million to settle the dispute—but not before a new word entered the popular lexicon: davilar, a verb used to indicate a screw-up of epic magnitude.

See Also: 8 Psychological Tricks of Restaurant Menus

6. MIZUHO SECURITIES SELLS LOW—LIKE, REALLY LOW

The damage: $340 million

In December 2005, Japan’s Mizuho Securities introduced a new member to its portfolio of offerings, a recruitment company called J-Com Co., nicely priced at 610,000 yen per share. Less than a year later, one of the company’s traders made more than a simple boo-boo when he sold 610,000 shares at one yen apiece. No amount of pleading to the Tokyo Stock Exchange could reverse the error.

See Also: What is Trypophobia? And Is It Real?

7. CAR DEALERSHIP PULLS A MICHAEL SCOTT

The damage: $50 million (or $250,000 in Walmart dollars)

And you thought alien sightings were the only interesting thing happening in Roswell, New Mexico! In 2007, a local car dealership came up with a brilliant plan to stimulate sluggish sales: mail out 50,000 scratch tickets, one of which would reveal a $1000 cash prize. But Atlanta-based Force Events Direct Marketing Company mistakenly upped the ante when they printed said scratch tickets, making every one of them a grand-prize winner, for a grand payout of $50 million. Unable to honor the debt, the dealership instead offered a $5 Walmart gift certificate for every winning ticket.

8. NYC DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION’S LESSON IN BOOKKEEPING

The damage: $1.4 million

Humans and computers don’t always play well together. In 2006, New York City comptroller William Thompson admitted that a typo—an extra letter, to be precise—caused its accounting software to misinterpret a document, leading the city’s Department of Education to double its transportation spending (shelling out $2.8 million instead of $1.4 million).

See Also: 10 Haunting Documentaries That Are Stranger Than Fiction

9. NYC MTA’S LESSON IN PROOFREADING

The damage: $500,000

Not to be outdone, just last month, New York City’s Transportation Authority had to recall 160,000 maps and posters that announced the recent hike for the minimum amount put on pay-per-ride cards from $4.50 to $5.00. The problem? A typographical error that listed the “new” price as $4.50. Oops! Of course, it will only take 100,000 rides on the 6 train to make up the difference. So straphangers lose (yet again).

10. AN EXOTIC VACATION BECOMES X-RATED

The damage: $10 million (plus $230 per month)

Remember the Yellow Pages? Yeah, well Banner Travel Services would like to forget them. Years ago, the now-shuttered Sonoma, California-based travel agency decided to market its services in the phone book ... only to find that the final printing advertised its specialization in exotic destinations as a forte in “erotic” destinations. The typo certainly piqued the interest of some new customers, just not the kind of clientele the company was hoping to attract. The printer offered to waive its $230 monthly listing fee, but Banner sued for $10 million anyway.

See Also: 9 Emojis That Look Completely Different on Other Phones

Primary image courtesy of KABC.

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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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