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10 Fun Facts for National Play-Doh Day

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According to Hallmark, today is National Play-Doh Day! We're not sure what September 16th has to do with Play-Doh, but here are some fun facts about the toy that started as a household cleaner.

1. Play-Doh was first sold as a wallpaper cleaner. People could remove soot and dirt from their wall coverings by simply rolling the wad of goop across the surface.

2. We might not have Play-Doh if it weren't for Captain Kangaroo. When it was just a fledgling company with no advertising budget, inventor Joe McVicker talked his way in to visit Bob Keeshan, A.K.A. Captain K. Although the company couldn’t pay the show outright, McVicker offered them two percent of Play-Doh sales for featuring the product once a week. Keeshan loved the compound and began featuring it three times weekly. After that, it caught on like wildfire and was featured on DingDongSchool and Romper Room.

3. Since its inception, two billion cans of Play-Doh have been sold. Not bad for wallpaper cleaner. If you took all of that Play-Doh ever made and wadded it into a giant ball, it would weigh as much as 2,000 Statues of Liberty.

4. Back when it was a household cleaner, the product came in only one dud of a color: off-white. When it hit stores as a toy in 1955, red, blue and yellow were available. These days, you can find nearly every color of the rainbow, but a consumer poll taken in 2000 revealed that the fan favorites are rose red, purple paradise, garden green and blue lagoon.

5. For quite some time, Dr. Tien Liu had a resume blurb no one else in the world could claim: Play-Doh expert. Liu helped perfect the Play-Doh formula for the original company, Rainbow Crafts, and stayed on as a Play-Doh Expert when the modeling compound was purchased by Kenner and then Hasbro.

6. Want to smell like Play-Doh? You can. Demeter Fragrance Library worked with Hasbro to make the fragrance to commemorate Play-Doh’s 50th anniversary. Hasbro said the fragrance is "meant for highly creative people, who seek a whimsical scent reminiscent of their childhood."

7. When biometric scanners were a bit more primitive, people discovered that you could make a mold of a person’s finger, then squish Play-Doh in the mold to make a replica of the finger that would actually fool fingerprint scanners. That won’t work with today's more sophisticated systems.

8. The Play-Doh Dr. Drill ‘n Fill set seems a bit bizarre to me. It consisted of a giant head with a giant set of teeth for you to improve – jam Play-Doh in a cavity-riddled tooth to “fill” it or even pull teeth past saving with the pliers that came with the set. Check it out:

Despite the weird Dr. Drill ‘n Fill, it seems most Play-Doh sets are meant to encourage kids to eat the pliable putty, a habit that kids seem prone to anyway. Food-based sets include Breakfast Time (complete with Play-Doh waffle iron), Burger Builder, Spaghetti Factory, Barbeque Playset, Ice Cream Shoppe, Fun Food Poppin Movie Snacks, Pizza Party, Sweet Creations, Sandwich Shop, Fabulous Fruits… man, I kind of have a hankering for some salty, nontoxic dough right now…

9. You can make your own Play Doh. Here are several different recipes, including an edible peanut butter dough.

10. That little guy on the box? His name is Play-Doh Pete. He has evolved quite a bit over the years – back in the early days, the Play-Doh mascot was a somewhat creepy-looking elf. Sometime in the ‘60s, the mascot morphed into a beret-wearing boy and picked up the name Pete. Although his looks and style changed a little over the years, Pete didn’t drop the beret until the 1990s, when he picked up more of a teenage look and a cool new baseball cap.

Happy National Play-Doh Day to you and yours!

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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