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8 Super Bowl Commercials From Defunct Companies

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During the late '90s and early 2000s, the Internet Startup dot-com bubble was in full effect. Investors and venture capitalists itching to become the next overnight success invested in companies that failed to provide usable services—which led to losing millions—and in turn, they fell apart or collapsed. But before the bubble burst, many companies spent millions to air 30-second commercials during the Super Bowl to gain national exposure. Here are a few of them.

1. Pets.com


A site that sold and delivered retail pet supplies, Pets.com built a profile by buying national ads during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and Super Bowl XXXIV, which cost the company $1.2 million. Comic actor Michael Ian Black voiced the Pets.com sock puppet mascot.

To stay competitive and build a loyal customer base, Pets.com sold pet supplies at cheaper prices than the products' retail costs, and the company burned through $30 million of investment capital before calling it quits in November 2000.

2. OnMoney.com


OnMoney.com's main mission was to provide usable and easy tricks to sort through and manage your financial statements. The company boasted that it had quick and easy methods that would allow users to learn how to be fiscally responsible. Ironically, OnMoney.com wasted a majority of its money on a glitzy $30 million national ad campaign that culminated with Super Bowl XXXIV in January 2000. While the commercial claimed easy access to their website, the truth was that OnMoney.com didn’t spend enough money to build a functional and usable website, which was still labeled “beta” by the time the commercial aired during the Big Game. The site, once a subsidiary of TDAmeritrade, saw its functionalities integrated into Ameritrade's Personal Finance Center in 2001.

3. Netpliance.com


Founded in 1999, Netpliance was a company that manufactured inexpensive Internet appliances—small and cheap computers that were only used for Internet browsing. The company sold their i-Opener web browser machine for $99 at a loss. The actual retail price of the Internet appliance was believed to be somewhere between $300 and $400. The company didn't intend to make money on its hardware; instead, the idea was that Netpliance.com would turn a profit selling Internet subscriptions to access the web.

During Super Bowl XXXIV, Netpliance spent millions on a 30-second ad that announced to the world that logging on to “cyberspace” didn’t mean owning a computer. Almost a year later, in November 2000, the company quit making Internet appliances and licensed their technology to AT&T and Earthlink, who helped provide Internet access to the company’s customers. In 2002, Netpliance folded altogether.

4. Lifeminders.com


The startup company Lifeminders.com advertised “personalized” email, which included relevant news, entertainment, sports, and lifestyle stories that appealed to you. The service would aggregate all of this information in one digestible daily email. At its height, Lifeminders.com boasted 18 million subscribers and was estimated to be worth $60 million.

In 1999, a few months after the company went public, it aired a self-proclaimed “Worst Ad on the Super Bowl” during Super Bowl XXXIV, featuring typewriter text against a yellow background while "Chopsticks" played simply throughout the ad. In 2001, it was acquired by the Herndon, Virginia-based Cross Media Marketing Corp. The website now hosts nothing but ads.

5. Epidemic.com

Founded in September 1999, Epidemic.com was an Internet service that sought to simulate viral marketing by "[paying] consumers to attach links to Internet businesses on their outgoing email," according to CNet. The Denver-based startup spent $1.6 million on a 30-second commercial that aired during Super Bowl XXXIV in January 2000. Epidemic.com burned through its first round of private investment money, $7.6 million, in less than a year, and folded in June 2000.

6. Ourbeginning.com


The online personalized stationery store Ourbeginning.com experienced some growth in web traffic after it premiered its 30-second commercial during Super Bowl XXXIV. The online retailer spent upwards of $4 million of its $15 million advertisement budget for Super Bowl commercials in the year 2000. The site was out of its original founders' hands by 2002, and now re-directs users to a daycare center in Seattle, Washington.

7. Just For Feet


During Super Bowl XXXIII in 1999, athletic shoes and sportswear retailers Just For Feet aired a very controversial 30-second commercial. The ad featured a group of white men tracking a barefoot Kenyan runner through the African savanna. The men give the runner some water spiked with a sedative that makes him pass out. When the runner awakens, he finds a pair of new running shoes on his feet, as he runs away trying to shake off the new shoes.

The ad generated backlash against Just For Feet with accusations that the retailers were racist and “appallingly insensitive.” Just For Feet filed a lawsuit against the ad agency responsible for the commercial, which was later dropped. The company also filed for Chapter 7 protection in 2003 and eventually closed its doors in 2004, as a result of accounting fraud.

8. FloTV

Telecommunications company Qualcomm developed the technology that allowed the transmission of audio, video, and data to portable devices such as personal TVs and mobile phones. Qualcomm branded the personal streaming service as FloTV and began selling devices for the service in 2007. With a struggling subscription base, Qualcomm launched a “Hail Mary” for Super Bowl XLV in the form of a 30-second commercial in 2010. Despite 111 million viewers tuning in to Fox to watch the Big Game, FloTV called it quits the following March.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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