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6 Get-Rich-Quick Schemes From Vintage Comic Books

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A lot of ads in old comic books just wanted your money. You send in the cash; you get the low-quality novelty toy that will teach you an important lesson about trusting anyone who purports to sell you alien technology that can see through ladies' clothes. But there were other ads in those old comic books, placed by companies who wanted you to give them other people’s money. All you had to do was hit the pavement and sell their products door to door. In return you’d get money, prizes, and a start in the business world. Usually.

1. Engravaplates

Identity theft was harder to accomplish in the 1970s. So much so that people might actually want to carry around a metal plate with the numerical key to their entire life engraved on it. That was the hope behind the Cardinal Sales Inc. trademarked “Engravaplates.”

Customers would be “amazed and delighted” to discover the plates only cost $2, “especially when they discover they also get a Smart Carrying Case, and ID card, and an exclusive 10-Year-Calander – All Free!”  Best of all, as the all-important middle man in this transaction, you would keep one dollar of every sale. Think how that adds up! “Take as many as 10 or more orders in an hour, and make as much as $10 or more in every spare hour you devote to showing the sample plate.”

Engravaplate maintained its 1972 trademark an impressively long time for a third-person novelty sales object, until 1995. And they didn't limit their sales pool to adolescents, putting much simpler ads in Field & Stream, Popular Mechanics, and Ebony magazines.

2. Sunshine Studio Cards

Sunshine Studios Inc. (a stationery company founded in 1951 that appears to still exist) managed to stuff a lot of manipulative sleight of hand onto a single page of a 1973 copy of “Secret Romance.” Are you smart enough to pass our test? (Psh. YES.) Because we’ll give* you a lot of money if you can. (Money? Now you’ve really pulled my attention away from my copy of Tiger Beat with Erik Estrada and Scott Baio on the cover.) Seriously girls, people will buy these personalized Christmas cards from you, because they’d cost twice as much in a store. (Omigod that is such a bargain!) “All you have to do is show these cards to people you know. The cards sell themselves.”

Just show the cards. And be prepared, as avarice and desire cloud the faces of your loved ones while they whisper in dry voices, “I must have them,” pushing cash and heirloom jewelry into your hands. Sign me up!

*We will not give you any money.

3. SLC Personalized Christmas Card

Oh, Sunshine Studios Inc., you are a crafty minx. You were the parent company of many “children-shilling-stationery” programs under many names, including the Sales Leadership Club, a popular way for kids to try to earn awesome prizes clear into the '90s. Again, the game was selling personalized Christmas cards, but a slightly different twist was used to lure the younger readers of Boris Karloff’s Tales of Mystery and Boys' Life. Forget the cash. Look at the STUFF! Whatever your penchant, you can earn enough money to indulge it, from rocket kits to professional-style hair dryers.

And, even more delightfully, SLC was totally on the level, and remained a member of the Better Business Bureau from the '50s to the '90s. With a little hustle, you really stood a chance of winning that Deluxe Two Band Radio. 

4. Grit Magazine

As a fervent student of history, it leaves me gob smacked that I had never heard of Grit. Because when they tell their potential salesboys that they are America’s Greatest Family Newspaper, they weren’t flim-flamming. Grit was founded by a German immigrant named Dietrick Lamade in 1885. That fact alone isn’t so surprising until it is combined with the fact the Grit still exists! Both online and in published form, it enjoys a hearty circulation among American’s rural inhabitants, as it has for nearly 130 years.

Entrepreneurship wasn’t the only challenge the Lamades offered the young men of America; one of Lamade’s sons was a top executive in the Little League Baseball association. The Lamades contributed liberally to making Little League a national institution, which in turn gave them a healthy pool of recruits to sell their newspaper to its intended small town readers.

Grit was very popular; one reason was because it was not a “real” newspaper. It was Lamade’s business practice to never include any news that would depress or drain hope from his readers, and his pages were packed with comics, stories, and amusing human interest, with a special focus on rural living. Seven cents profit per copy might have not been a bad deal for such a well-received product. 

5. American Seed Company

Gather round and hear the tale of an American tragedy. So … did YOU sell American Seed Company seed packets in your neighborhood when you were young? If so, perhaps you are one of the guilty. The American Seed Company operated a business dynamic with its adolescent salespeople that, while seeming quite unsound by today’s standards, served them well for decades. The child would send in for the seed packs, sell them, send back all the money, and earn a nice prize, like a badminton set, or a pocket calculator. But between 1975 and 1981, 400,000 children sent away for seed packages and never sent any money back. Because why should they? They could just keep the money, and The American Seed Company could go pound salt. So, in 1981, the company went out of business, bilked out of existence by the earliest tides of a cynical, grungy Generation X.

6. Olympic Sales Club

Oh sure, it’s greeting cards again. But if the Facebook fan page is any judge, Olympic treated their little minions pretty well. They advertised more and better prizes than their competitors, filling every square inch of ad space they could spare with drawings of (often name brand) loot, from Huffy Motocross Bikes (sell 64 boxes of cards) to the Deluxe Uno Card Game (just 7 boxes!).

Eventually, Olympic Sales became Olympia Sales, and according to Kelly, who answered the phone at Olympia, they stopped having kids selling door to door around seven years ago: “It’s just the age we live in, you know? No one wants their kids selling door to door.” Olympia still produces cards, but now only for wholesale to distributors.

There is good news for the parents and grandparents who successfully earned Pink Panther Radios and Kodak Instant Cameras, and wish their own progeny could have the same experience. Kelly hinted that Olympia might be considering bringing back a form of kid-driven distribution in the future, via internet, which would make it the only sales scheme on our list to keep enterprising kids on the payroll.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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