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Ron Popeil's Subliminal Messaging Machines

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While perusing Ron Popeil's history on Google's patent library—it's fun, you should try it—I stumbled upon what I like to interpret as a brief obsession for America's favorite inventor and infomercial host. In the late '80s and early '90s, Popeil Industries filed a number of patent requests for subliminal messaging technology and the machinery to implement it.

US 5017143 A, a patent filed in 1989 by Popeil Industries that lists Ron Popeil as an inventor (along with longtime collaborator Alan Backus) doesn't mince words:

The field of this invention is the production and generation of visual subliminal images, and in particular, video subliminal images intended to alter behavior, attitudes, moods and/or performance.

Another Popeil patent, this one simply titled, "SUBLIMINAL DEVICE," is even a little blasé about light mind control:

Theories behind changing behavior through subliminal communications, as well as systems of message thought to be effective in subliminally changing behavior, are well known to those knowledgeable in the art and thus are not discussed here.

Reading that makes Popeil sound like a subliminal messaging snob—First of all, it's an art.

US 5221962 A

Popeil's patents point to a subliminal messaging device made for home use. This invention is adjustable and allows the user to determine how subliminal they want their messages, which is hilarious because, well, then they're not subliminal.

From WO 1992003888 A1:

Many problems are presented by these subliminal devices. First, there is no way an individual may verify if any subliminal messages are being presented by such devices. By definition, the messages presented are at levels which are not readily detectable.

Continuing, there is no way an individual may positively verify what subliminal messages he or she is receiving. This is a major drawback because an individual must trust the manufacturer to place correct and positive subliminal messages on the tape. Some of these devices supply scripts and/or recordings of what they claim has been subliminally recorded. But there is no proof that these are accurate.

...

The preset invention provides means for an individual to manually adjust, from supraliminal to subliminal levels, the level of obviousness of subliminal signals he or she is receiving.

This is a very interesting demographic he's going after here: Consumers who want the benefits of subliminal persuasion but are worried they're not getting all the messaging they paid for.

The actual technology is somewhat complicated, so I reached out to both Ron Popeil himself and the man who served as his patent lawyer. Popeil never got back to me, and his lawyer said he did not advise him on the subliminal messaging devices and could be of no assistance.

What I gather about the nuts and bolts of this invention (which, to my knowledge, never got past the patent stage) is that it dealt with rasterline frames and superimposed images while automatically adjusting them for contrast so they could fade into the screen. There's pretty advanced stuff going into this machine, even if all it did was let a compulsive eater adjust how sharply the text "EAT LESS" appeared on their TV.

While this is remarkably silly, we shouldn't forget that, in the 1980s, subliminal messaging was frequently marketed as a popular self-help gimmick. A 1988 New York Times business section article reported on these high-selling audio tapes and alluded to a "cultural phenomenon." (They also uncovered the script to one of these tapes' subliminal messages: "It's O.K. to do better than Dad. I do better than Daddy. I deserve to do better than Dad. I deserve to succeed. I deserve to reach my goals. I deserve to be rich." God, the '80s were awful.)

Still, Popeil clearly had interest in subliminal messaging, and I couldn't help but wonder whether or not these patents were part of a sinister plan to brainwash Americans into buying Pocket Fishermen and electric pasta makers. Why wouldn't he try using this technology in some of his infomercials and ads? Like many paranoid obsessives before me, I went to the tape to find out.

After closely watching Ron Popeil ads for the better part of an afternoon, I could only find two instances where it looked as if subliminal messaging was used, and both occurred during a commercial for The Buttoneer (a plastic pincer-like device that secures buttons onto fabric with an obtrusive little nub). First, there was the presence of a stray exclamation point for one frame, and it appeared in the middle of the product itself:

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Even more scandalously, I thought I stumbled upon a brief pornographic clip later in the same commercial. I thought I had tumbled down the rabbit hole and uncovered the Queen of Diamonds of this infomercial Manchurian Candidate. That was until, after stopping and pausing the clip for over an hour straight, I realized what had really happened: I had gone slightly off my rocker. This ad for The Buttoneer was produced in 1973. All the stray text and blurry cuts had to be attributed to the low production value.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have been stricken with an insatiable desire to re-button all my dress shirts.

Patents:
-US 5017143 A: "Method and apparatus for producing subliminal images"
-US 5221962 A: "Subliminal device having manual adjustment of perception level of subliminal messages"
-WO 1992003888 A1: "Subliminal device"
-CA 2002933 A1: "Apparatus for generating superimposed television images"

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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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