CLOSE
Original image

The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Spuds MacKenzie, The Original Party Animal

Original image

There's a moment in Spuds MacKenzie's interview with Dick Clark when Clark shifts gears and, as if by obligation, brings up the recent bad press the bull terrier has been the subject of. "There are these vicious rumors," he begins, addressing not the tuxedo-wearing Spuds, but one of the beautiful spokesmodels—or "Spudettes"—who accompany him. "Is there any truth to the fact that he is female?" The Spudette, clearly trained for this type of question, asserts, "He's got three women around him, and I don't think we'd be following him..." Clark, thrusting his fist forward, interrupts, "He's a full-out macho guy?" A few men in the audience let out ferocious whoos! and yeahs! They are relieved to hear that their hero is, like them, a cool dude.

Spuds MacKenzie was, in fact, a female dog. Her real name was Honey Tree Evil Eye, and Jackie and Stanley Oles, the humans who owned her, called her "Evie." This was all revealed in a 1987 People Magazine article that set out to debunk rumors that the bull terrier had died in a limo accident, or while surfing, or in a plane crash. In a stunning breach of privacy, the article also published the Oles' home address. Soon after the People piece came out, Jackie Oles was sitting with Evie on the stoop of her suburban Chicago house when a reporter confronted her, unannounced. "I don't talk to reporters," she said before hurrying inside. Oles was wearing a Spuds MacKenzie sweatshirt at the time.

If, by chance, you don't know who Spuds MacKenzie is, it's probably because Budweiser retired him in 1989. Spuds sold beer and—this may be hard to believe—he was one of the most famous living things on the planet. Though he hasn't been seen in a while, he's about to make his way back into the spotlight. In honor of his 30th anniversary, Spuds will make an appearance during Super Bowl LI—albeit as a ghost (voiced by Carl Weathers) who is on a mission to teach a man about the spirit of Bud Light. 

(NOTE: I will be using male pronouns for Spuds the character and female pronouns for Honey Tree Evil Eye from this point forward.)

Honey Tree Evil Eye was bred to be a show dog, and the Oles joined Chicago's Fort Dearborn Bull Terrier Club and coached her for competition. Evie performed relatively well within her breed, but never placed at Silverwood, America's premier bull terrier event.

At a show in Chicago, Evie caught the attention of DDB Needham. The ad agency was scouting for a dog-centered campaign, and the splotch over Evie's left eye made her stand out. She was invited for a photo shoot, and soon posters of her as Spuds MacKenzie sitting behind a goblet of Bud Light while wearing a "Delta Omicron Gamma" fraternity sweatshirt began to pop up at college campuses. The premise—cool dog is cool—proved so popular that wholesalers demanded Anheuser-Busch put Spuds on television.

Evie's demeanor was unusually calm for her breed and she behaved more like a lap cat than a rough-and-tumble terrier. Her breeder told the Bull Terrier Club of Dallas that “she was very mellow and low key. The owners sometimes used a yo-yo in the ring to get her to spark up and show." She was known to lounge about and munch on Raisin Chex, which was hand-fed to her. Relaxed and undemanding, Evie was a perfect candidate for TV work.

Spuds' first prime-time TV appearance came during Super Bowl XXI in 1987.

The spot features a narrative arch that would become the go-to formula in the Spuds MacKenzie oeuvre: 1. Spuds shows up at a party. 2. Everyone is thrilled to see Spuds—especially the women.

Robin Leach provides the voiceover, which hammers home the fact that not only is Spuds a cool party dude, but he also is obscenely wealthy. This stolid, fat, rich dog surrounded by adoring models and sycophantic buddies begs to be seen as both a result of and response to the late 1980s—but then you might be missing the gag.

The reaction to the original 1987 ad was enthusiastic, and what followed was a full-on marketing assault and nationwide in-joke that acknowledged, dismissed, winked at, and embraced nearly every advertising cliche.

The key to the campaign's success, Bill Stolberg tells me, was the fact that they never acknowledged that Spuds was a dog—they would insist he was a man. Stolberg's name comes up a lot in old press clippings about Spuds' meteoric rise to fame. He worked for Fleishman Hillard, the PR firm Anheuser-Busch used for the campaign, and Stolberg traveled with Spuds and acted as his brand manager and voice. He recalls, "The first question we'd always get would be, 'What kind of dog is Spuds?' To which I replied, 'He's not a dog, he's an executive.'"

As Spuds grew in popularity, so did the beer. According to the New York Times, Spuds helped increase Bud Light's sales by 20 percent between 1987 and 1988. Serious business journalists began contacting Stolberg for insight on the campaign and its star dog, but he wouldn't break character. Stolberg would insist that Spuds was a human man—a Senior Party Consultant, to be specific—and that he was so cool he didn't have to speak verbally. "It would drive them crazy," he says.

The hallmark of late-'80s advertising was overt self-awareness. Audiences were wise to BS—or at least marketers decided audiences should be hip to it—so commercials and spokespeople were done as parody. It's why Coca-Cola used Max Headroom, a satirical version of a super-slick television host doomed to live inside a computer, and why Isuzu had Joe Isuzu, a pathological liar of a spokesman whose audacious claims would be corrected by on-screen text overlaid during his ads. The pervading idea was that you're in on the joke too, friend. We know you're smart—doesn't that feel good?

Spuds MacKenzie fits into this category, but the joke was twisted and pushed far beyond the restrictions of TV. When he went on tour, whether to appear on Good Morning America or to throw out the first pitch at a National League playoff game, his marketing team would go to extremes to perpetuate the Spuds MacKenzie mythos. "We'd put him in limos and rent him his own hotel rooms," says Stolberg. "He would be dressed in a tuxedo and walk through the airport with the Spudettes. People would see him, and that's how it would grow."

The death rumors were a sign that Spuds had truly made it. Stolberg recalls showing up at his office to find a stack of missed-call slips an inch thick, all from people who were trying to get in touch to see if the spokesdog really did die in that limo crash or via hot tub electrocution while soaking with the Spudettes.

The Spudettes were key to this success, and the troupe made up of models and aspiring actresses became a cultural phenomenon in their own right. In fact, Sir Mix-A-Lot says he wrote "Baby Got Back" as a response to "the Spuds MacKenzie girls, little skinny chicks looking like stop signs, with big hair and skinny bodies."

If Spuds was a gag on the cliched spokesman, then the Spudettes riffed on the idea that "sex sells." The benefit of presenting the latter as a joke is that it still does the job as well as its more sincere analog. Posters of Spuds and the Spudettes were the most popular pin-ups in the country, "easily outdistanc[ing] TV's 'Alf,' No. 2 in the poster market," reported the Los Angeles Times, which also called Spuds "the Nation's Most Unlikely Sex Symbol."

Pretending that a dog was a human man who loved—and was loved—by women seems like it would present some problems, and when I asked Stolberg if he was ever worried about this, he insisted that the idea was ridiculous. “You’d have to be pretty bizarre to think anything like that.” 

While everything about Spuds MacKenzie was a joke, the dichotomy of people who wanted to get it and those who didn't defined and caused much of Spuds' success. While Morning Zoo DJs and targeted consumers laughed at and championed the idea of an expressionless lump of a dog who drove women wild, reporters saw him as the origins of a market-driven phenomenon that, given the time period, must have been of great importance. It's why People magazine talked to both a Chicago account executive and a UC Berkeley "urban humor expert" in that scoop about the party dog's real gender that featured the Oles' full home address.

"It was kind of nuts," Stolberg says. "[The Oles] were totally unprepared for all that silliness, but they were good sports about it." Jackie Oles would travel with Spuds wherever he went, and one can only imagine what she thought as she sat in the green room and watched David Letterman interview her dog.

In "Spuds Is A Dud As A Party Guy—He's A Girl," the Chicago Tribune's follow-up to the People piece, Illinois State Senator Judy Baar Topinka said of the Oles, "The family has tried to be really low profile." Topinka had tried to pass a resolution in the Senate honoring her district as the home of Spuds MacKenzie. Anheuser-Busch protested the resolution and it was eventually pulled, but this wouldn't be the last time lawmakers discussed Spuds MacKenzie.

Less than a year after Spuds' national TV debut, Strom Thurmond stood on the floor of the U.S. Senate chamber and waved a stuffed Spuds MacKenzie doll. He accused Anheuser-Busch of using the mascot to sell alcohol to underage drinkers, saying, ''I am not confident in the voluntary efforts of the alcohol beverage industry to increase public awareness of the hazards of alcohol abuse with 12-year-olds drinking wine coolers and wearing Spuds MacKenzie T-shirts.'' He made his case while standing in front of huge posters featuring the "Ayatollah of Partyollah" himself, Spuds MacKenzie.

A month later, Ohio stores pulled all Bud Light cartons that featured images of Spuds MacKenzie dressed up as Santa due to a law that prohibited St. Nick from being used to sell alcohol. Across the country, schools were banning students from wearing popular Spuds MacKenzie gear.

In response to all this, Anheuser-Busch eventually switched its $50 million Spuds MacKenzie campaign from Bud Light to a responsible drinking initiative. This is why Super Bowl XXIII's 15-second spot features Spuds playing guitar with no beer in sight, along with the tagline: "Know When to Say When." One year prior, Super Bowl XXII featured an ad where MacKenzie wins an Olympic Gold Medal in hockey and shares an ice cold Bud Light with a gorgeous Russian woman.

Spuds' TV appearances became fewer and fewer as the decade neared its end. "A really good campaign doesn't last much longer than 18 months," Stolberg says, "The joke gets old." Spuds lives on through the over 200 officially licensed items of Spuds merchandise (as well as the knock-off party animal gear that was once sold on street corners and at beach resorts like Phendi handbags) that you can buy on eBay

"You'll still sometimes see those plastic Spuds MacKenzie signs in bars," Bill Stolberg says, marveling at how long it has been. He left Fleishman Hillard in 1995 to start his own consulting firm, which he still runs. I ask him what Spuds MacKenzie was really like, if he was always as calm as he seemed in the commercials. "Ah ah ah," he interrupts, "Mr. MacKenzie is not a dog."

Honey Tree Evil Eye died of kidney failure at the age of 10 in 1993—she had an average lifespan for a healthy English bull terrier. Her death was reported at the time with the headline "Spuds MacKenzie Really Dead This Time." Unlike the actors who played Max Headroom and Joe Isuzu, Evie didn't need to worry about what she would do with her career once the ad work dried up. It is understood that she spent her retirement lounging with her family and eating Raisin Chex.

This article originally ran in 2014.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
iStock
Animals
arrow
Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
Original image
iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES