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Mark Ellwood

The Very First Coupons

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Mark Ellwood

Mark Ellwood is the author of Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World.

TLC’s surreal megahit Extreme Couponing (aka Hoarders with a half-price twist) has made the coupon a pop culture touchstone once again. Coupons have made the kind of comeback Lindsay Lohan would envy: 2010 marked the largest number ever distributed stateside—322 billion in just twelve months when shoppers used them to save around two billion dollars. It’s strange to think, then, that we don’t even know the name of the man who first came up with the idea. All that’s certain is that he was an accountant in Georgia.

That discount pioneer was the bookkeeper for a morphine-addicted Civil War veteran called John Pemberton, who’d dreamed up a sugary tincture to try and make his fortune. Pemberton dubbed his delicious medicine, supposedly a nerve tonic, Coca Cola. To help juice sales of the soda, his moneyman suggested a special deal: handwritten slips that offered the bearer a free glass of Coca Cola from any soda fountain, passed out on the street much as today’s flyers still are.

Photo courtesy of Mark Ellwood

When the sickly inventor offloaded his secret recipe to a smart but dour entrepreneur named Asa Candler, the new owner also co-opted his marketing trick. He reconfigured the mechanics, though: Instead of handing out slips on the street, he would send them to commercial customers, the soda fountains. When someone ordered one gallon of syrup, Candler sent two gallons for the same price, plus a fistful of coupons. The equation was simple: Use these ONE FREE GLASS tokens until the first gallon is finished, he suggested, and watch as the second gallon sells briskly.

It was a masterstroke of marketing. Within a decade, thanks to his canny couponing, the Georgia tonic was for sale in every state in the country. Indeed, between 1886 and 1920, when the program was quietly retired, 10 percent of all Coca-Cola in the world was given away for free via a sample coupon; by one estimate, that’s around 8.5 million glasses. (Sadly, none of the original batch survives—too flimsy, and likely too eagerly redeemed—but some of the earliest Candler-era coupons are displayed in a vitrine at Coca Cola’s massive museum in downtown Atlanta.)

The economic slowdown of the Depression turbocharged coupon usage (sound familiar?); other companies like Colgate copied the idea, printing coupons on the wrappers of products like soap, making sure there was a built-in discount on the next purchase. What really catapulted the coupon into everyone’s wallet, though, was the post-war suburban boom of Atomic Era America: TV dinners, station wagons, and chainlink fences. Supermarkets sprung up for the first time, wielding coupons as a discount weapon of mass destruction and luring suburbanites from mom & pop shops.

By 1965, one half of all American households were clipping coupons; ten years later, that number had reached a staggering 75 percent. And all thanks to our love of a glass of Coca Cola.

Mark Ellwood is offering an exclusive deal on this book: A BONUS chapter, Bargain Fever: The Manual, which features 100 tips and tricks to help you save money and shop smarter, from airline tickets to TVs. Order a copy of Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World (Penguin-Portfolio, October 2013) here before October 17 and forward the proof of purchase to You'll then receive this exclusive pdf by email on the day of publication.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.