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15 Polls Hijacked by the Internet

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ThinkStock

To find a name for their new $288 million polar research ship, the UK's Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) recently launched an online poll. The poll ends on April 16, and if the current results hold, the vessel will be given the name "Boaty McBoatface." While it doesn't quite have the majesty of, say, "RMS Queen Elizabeth," "Boaty McBoatface" is a good example of what one can expect from an Internet poll.

To honor "Boaty McBoatface," here are 15 other polls that went awry once people on the Internet found a way to steer them off track into outrageous (and sometimes insensitive) results.

1. Shea Stadium Gets Rick Rolled

When the New York Mets' marketing department put the team's new eighth inning theme song up for a fan vote in 2008, they didn't expect a slightly obscure Rick Astley hit from the '80s to overtake stadium staples like "Sweet Caroline" or "Livin' on a Prayer." But due mostly to the virality of "Never Gonna Give You Up" and the bizarre Internet phenomenon of Rick Rolling (tricking unsuspecting Web surfers to click on the song's goofy music video), the song netted more than 5 million votes. That's more than eight times the capacity of Shea Stadium.

Fans were pretty quick to give the song up. According to Mets spokesman Jay Horowitz, when the song was played on Opening Day it was met with a chorus of boos. He told ABC News, "It wasn't a good day for Rick."

2. Taylor Swift Almost Performs For a School of the Deaf

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When the Taylor Swift camp set up a contest to perform at the U.S. school that earned the most votes, they probably didn't anticipate Boston's Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing winning. But Reddit and 4Chan users encouraged their respective communities to game the contest, and the Horace Mann School rocketed to the top of the poll.

The country starlet and her contest sponsors blocked the school from the poll because of the tampering (see: several other entries on this list), but Swift and company donated a cool $50,000 to the school. The singer also ponied up free tickets for her next local show for students. 

3. Justin Bieber Almost Gets Sent to North Korea

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A restriction-less 2010 poll set up by Faxo.com to pick a destination for Justin Bieber's "My World" tour saw North Korea steal the top spot, climbing from 24th to 1st in a matter of two days. Since Kim Jong-Il put the kibosh on Western music in North Korea, instituted rigid travel regulations, and made the Internet off-limits for most of the country, the result was head-scratching at best.

That is, at least until 4Chan pranksters claimed credit for the joke, rigging the poll to send the pop star packing for communist North Korea. The country piled up more than 650,000 votes, toppling second-place Israel (also a prank option) by 30,000. For obvious reasons, the Biebs stayed put stateside

4. Pitbull Plays at the Most Remote Walmart in the U.S. 

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A Facebook poll launched in the summer of 2012 to sponsor a Pitbull concert at the Walmart franchise that earned the most Likes on the page. When the two-man brain trust behind comedy website Something Awful—David Thorpe and Jon Hendren—caught wind of the contest, they hijacked the poll to make sure the rapper got sent to the most remote Walmart store in the U.S.: Kodiak, Alaska.

Pitbull accepted his chilly fate with poise, inviting Hendren and Thorpe along to the frigid north. Thorpe took the hip-hop star up on his offer and met Pitbull at the show, who laughed off the joke by telling the prankster, "Keep bullsh***ing. Next thing you know we'll be on the moon."

5. Austin, Texas Almost Names Its Garbage Dump After Limp Bizkit's Frontman

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In 2011, citizens of the Lone Star state capital with a penchant for and a distaste for 90s nu metal voted to rechristen the city's Solid Waste Department the "Fred Durst Society of the Humanities and Arts," after the frontman of rap-rockers Limp Bizkit. The submission, offered by 24-year-old local Kyle Hentges, racked up more than 27,000 more votes than second-place option "Department of Neat and Clean."

Durst bestowed his blessing on the name change, but Austin city officials didn't: The dump was boringly renamed "Austin Resource Recovery." 

6. William Shatner Tries Naming Pluto's Moons

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Earlier this year, William Shatner used his clout to boldly name what no man had named before—two newly discovered moons orbiting ex-planet Pluto. The actor famous for portraying Captain James Tiberius Kirk hopped on social media to lobby for the names Romulus and Vulcan, two planets from the Star Trek mythos, in a SETI Institute poll to name the moons.

Romulus was quickly discarded, since it was already taken by an asteroid satellite, but Vulcan, Spock's homeworld, won the SETI Institute's Pluto Rocks! naming poll. Shatner's proposed names fit the bill for SETI's naming requirements: Vulcan borrows from Greek mythology as well as its Star Trek roots. Still, SETI elected to go with Styx and Kerberos instead

7. Norwegian Airline Almost Gets a Metal Mascot

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Heavy metal fans jumped on a 2012 poll created by Norwegian Air airline to adopt a "tailfin hero" (fancy-speak for "mascot") to emblazon on its fleet of planes. While the logo was meant to honor a deceased hero from Norwegian history, metalheads rocked the vote to move previously-unnominated Euronymous (born Oystein Aarseth)—erstwhile guitarist for Mayhem—to the top of the poll. 

The black metal guitarist shredded the competition, leading the pack of short-list candidates before his remaining family members asked the airline to remove Aarseth from the contest. Probably for good reason—a notorious musician who was associated with church burnings in the 1990s doesn't exactly scream "friendly corporate logo."

8. Greenpeace Names a Tagged Whale "Mr. Splashy Pants"

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When Greenpeace tagged a pod of humpbacks migrating to the South Pacific in 2007, the nonprofit held a competition to name one of the whales. Most names were stone-faced serious: Aurora, Libertad, and Aiko were all finalists. But then the Internet found out that one of the options was "Mister Splashy Pants," and it was all downhill from there.

Mostly thanks to Reddit, "Mister Splashy Pants" won a whopping 78 percent of the vote ("Humphrey" finished in a distant second). In an article declaring the winner, which affectionately refers to the whale as "The Splashy-Panted One," Greenpeace stated, "He might have a great name, but he and his friends are still in danger." 

9. Mountain Dew Lets the Internet Name a New Flavor

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File this one under reasons to not give Internet communities the power to name products. When Mountain Dew tapped its Internet followers to help christen a green apple-flavored drink, the disastrously short-lived 2012 "Dub the Dew" promotion was pretty quickly shut down when the suggestions that rolled in proved to be incredibly offensive.

Once again, the 4Chan message board ran rampant over an online poll, proffering names both harmless ("Soda," "Sierra Mist," and "Soylent Green") and insensitive (at the time the poll closed, the leader was "Hitler did nothing wrong"). Mountain Dew bailed on the promotion and issued a profuse apology to its fanbase, conceding that the company "lost to the Internet."

10. Vegemite Coins iSnack 2.0

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When Kraft Foods decided to rebrand a concoction of Australian staple Vegemite mixed with cream cheese, the company probably shouldn't have gone with the name suggested in a poll by an anonymous Aussie web developer who admitted having his tongue firmly in cheek when he dubbed the product "iSnack 2.0."  

Vegemite manufacturers said the name was chosen "for its personal call to action and clear identification of a new and different Vegemite," and Kraft moved more than 3 million jars of Vegemite iSnack 2.0—but four days after the announcement, the company cracked under consumer pressure and dropped the name. Later in 2009, the product was rebranded "Vegemite Cheesybite."

11. Rory Fitzpatrick Gets Voted Into the NHL All Star Game

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The defender for the Vancouver Canucks didn't exactly have a superstar stat line in 2007: After missing a month of play, Fitzpatrick only had one assist when All Star voting opened. But what the career journeyman—over 10 seasons, he had only netted 9 goals—didn't bank on was 22-year-old Steve Schmid of upstate New York, who campaigned for Fitzpatrick's All Star Candidacy.

The campaign took off. A Vancouver computer programmer developed a Firefox browser plug-in he called the "Rory Vote-O-Matic" to let Fitz fans fill out ballots automatically, and Schmid launched VoteForRory.com. The not-so-All-Star snagged more than 285,000 write-in votes, which placed him behind Scott Niedermayer and Nicklas Lidstrom

12. Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf Wins Beautiful People Poll

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For one shining moment in 1998, an angry drunken dwarf was the most beautiful person in the world. Hank, a character on shock jock Howard Stern's radio show, was the beneficiary of a chain email campaign (this was 1998, after all) to seize the top spot in People magazine's "People Online" poll for the most beautiful person in the world.

Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf staved off Leonardo DiCaprio at the height of Titanic hysteria as well as Madonna, with 230,000 write-in votes to his name. Second place belonged to wrestler Ric Flair; the rest of the list steered clear of curveballs, save for They Might Be Giants singer John Linnell at number nine in the rankings. 

13. Roland Bunce Almost Becomes New Next Model

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Roland Bunce, a 24-year-old computer science graduate hailing from Belfast, almost inadvertently stole Next's "Make Me a Model 2011" competition from more than 5000 entrants. The contest's grand prize? A 2000 euro check, a photo shoot, and a meeting with modeling agency Storm. 

After a Facebook fan page (made by pranksters) popped up and the unlikely model stormed into first place with more than 66,000 votes, Bunce dropped out of the competition, citing unwanted attention and threats on his personal Facebook profile as his reasons.

14. 4Chan Founder Wins Time 100 Poll

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Sure, Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, and Oprah Winfrey are kind of influential folks, but 4Chan founder Christopher Poole (who goes by the alias moot in Internet circles) bested 99 other movers and shakers—including the aforementioned trio—to win 2009's Time 100 Poll. Poole scored an average influence rating of 90 out of a possible 100; in comparison, Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim only managed a 47.

Time.com's managing editor, Josh Tyrangiel, made a statement about the out-of-left-field victory, saying, "I would remind anyone who doubts the result that this is an Internet poll. Doubting the results is kind of the point."

15. Game Developer Almost Places in Victoria's Secret Contest 

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Maybe Victoria's secret is that she's secretly programming Half-Life 3? When the lingerie chain hosted a contest where participants could post pictures in the hopes of winning a three-day "pampering getaway" to New York City for two, the Internet boosted portly Valve (the company behind critical smash hits Portal and Half-Life) co-founder Gabe Newell to number two on the contest chart.

The only reason Newell couldn't seize the top spot (at least before Victoria's Secret kicked the top two contestants out of the competition) was because 4Chan's moot was already occupying it. Yes, that's the same moot who pulled some strings to win the both the Time 100 and Wired.com's Sexiest Geek of 2009.

A version of this post originally appeared in 2013.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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