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11 Discontinued Beverages from Your Youth

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Unless you want to risk a bacterial infection by buying a case of soda from some unknown seller on eBay, there are certain beverages from your past that will remain as firmly there as your ill-fitting Sasson jeans. Considering all that science (and logic) has taught us about saccharin in the intervening decades, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Still, it’s time we raise a glass to the gone-but-not-forgotten nectar of our youth.

1. Original New York Seltzer, 1981-1993

Considering that it was conceived and produced in Walnut Creek, California, Original New York Seltzer was probably doomed from the get-go. Still, the carbonated soft drink line, which was more soda than seltzer (flavors included root beer and vanilla creme), managed to hide its true west coast roots for more than a decade.

2. Ecto Cooler, 1987-2001

Just as the popularity of Ghostbusters has endured, so too did the super-sweet drink it inspired: Ecto Cooler. Though it was intended as a limited-time beverage—one that would last as long as The Real Ghostbusters animated series—Slimer persevered long after the show’s 1991 demise. While production technically ceased in 2001, the beverage itself was really just re-branded: first as Shoutin’ Orange Tangergreen in 2001, then as Crazy Citrus Cooler in 2006. In 2007, the recipe was laid to rest completely—at least for mass consumption. Google the term “Ecto Cooler recipe” and you’ll get more than 40,000 hits on how to brew the legendary green stuff at home. 

3. Squeezit, 1985-2001

Squeezit set out to solve a problem that plagued many a consumer in the mid-1980s: How can we guzzle down a sugary soft drink even faster? As the name indicates, there was some science behind its consumption; in order to drink it you must first squeeze it. Perhaps the instructions provided too tricky for some, as the drink—which came in such fun flavors as Chucklin' Cherry, Berry B. Wild and Smarty Arty Orange—was discontinued in 2001. Fans of the fruit-flavored swill didn’t let it go quietly though; more than 6300 people have actually taken two minutes out of their day to petition General Mills to bring Squeezit back!

4. BoKu, 1990-2003

Everything about BoKu was sophisticated—from its gigantic size (at least compared to other juice boxes) and lack of straw to its use of addict/comedian Richard Lewis as a pitchman and the way it capitalized the K in “BoKu.” Yet in the end, all of the upscale marketing may have proved too “adult” for fans of white grape juice, as the drink disappeared in 2003.

5. Crystal Pepsi, 1992-1994

In 1992, PepsiCo hopped aboard the “if it’s clear it must be healthy” philosophy that swept through corporate America. Their offering? This caffeine-free soda, which they marketed as the “clear alternative” to cola. While sales of the beverage were initially impressive—approximately $474 million in sales quickly accumulated—the fad was a short-lived one; why drink something that sort of tastes like Pepsi when you can just drink Pepsi? The item’s brief time on the market is considered one of the beverage-maker’s biggest branding disasters.

6. Tab Clear, 1992-1994

Oh, Tab! If The Cola Wars hadn’t been raging, the Coca-Cola Company’s braintrust may have waited and watched Crystal Pepsi fail before launching their own see-through soda. But in late 1992 they unleashed Tab Clear … and watched it disappear from shelves as quickly as its competitor. The most interesting part of the story might be that Tab actually still exists! Yes, even in the U.S.

7. Surge, 1996-2003

The Cola Wars strike again! Sick and tired of seeing so many Mountain Dew-addicted kids, the Coca-Cola Company launched its own action-packed citrus soda, Surge, in 1996. In the planning stages, the company called it MDK, or Mountain Dew Killer. That was wishful thinking. Though Surge had its fair share of fans, the beverage could never catch its iridescent green competitor. But it wasn’t a total failure for Coke; The Surge Movement is a Facebook group of more than 18,000 consumers aimed at reviving discontinued products. 

8. Orbitz, 1997-1998

If you’ve ever had a cup of bubble tea, you understand the textural consistency of Orbitz, the non-carbonated fruit drink filled with tiny edible balls. Which means you know all too well why this drink, from the makers of Clearly Canadian, didn’t last a full year on the market. (It didn’t help that the beverage used the word “bowels” in its marketing materials.) 

9. Maxwell House Ready-to-Drink Coffee, 1990-1991

The popularity of the microwave made us all sorts of lazy back in the day, with everything from cakes to French fries coming in microwavable packs. In 1990, the makers of Maxwell House coffee decided to up the ante with this “ready-to-drink” jug of java. The problem was twofold, but ultimately boiled down to confusion: Maxwell House intended its customers to nuke their coffee before drinking, but the container itself was too large to fit inside a microwave, leading customers to drink it cold. Maybe that unintended consequence was just a bit ahead of its time.

10. Zima, 1993-2008

Male or female, over 21 years of age or otherwise, you know you tried Zima at least once. And—like most of the world—hated it instantly. Again, blame it on the Great Clear Beverage Fad of the 1990s. But Zima has always worked better as a punch line than as one’s beverage of choice for a fun night out. For fans of the “alcopop,” the good news is that it’s still actually sold in Japan. 

11. Mountain Dew Pitch Black, 2004 and 2011

As if Mountain Dew’s ghost-like green color wasn’t disturbing enough, in 2004 the company decided to launch a dark purple, grape-flavored soda—Pitch Black—to coincide with Halloween. Like the McRib before it, customers clamored to get some more. In 2011, the company briefly re-released the soda as part of its “Back by Popular DEWmand” initiative. No word yet on whether lightning will strike a third time. 

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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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Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]