Original image
Magnus Kolstad, Flickr

10 Discontinued Beverages Coveted by Collectors

Original image
Magnus Kolstad, Flickr

Nostalgia hounds often seek out a variety of oddball collectibles to scratch that yesteryear itch—even unopened bottles and cans of long-discontinued beverages. From the iconic to the downright bizarre, the following gone-but-not-forgotten libations still have their fan-bases, some of whom shell out pretty serious cash for these vintage potables.

1. Crystal Pepsi – 1992-1993

gavin rice, Flickr

Not even a splashy debut commercial featuring Van Halen during Super Bowl XXVII could stave off extinction for Pepsi’s short-lived translucent cola. The so-called “Clear Cola” hit the scene in 1992 and was discontinued barely a year later. A citrus version called simply Crystal shared a similar fate. It saw a brief resurrection in the mid-2000s in Mexico, where it sold as “Pepsi Clear.” Today, a yellowed 16-ounce glass bottle of the stuff can be had on eBay for around $40.

2. Billy Beer – 1977-1978

Chris Coyier, Flickr

Another notorious beverage of yore sought by collectors is Billy Beer, a brew promoted in 1977 by the late Billy Carter, kid brother of then-President Jimmy. The younger Carter, a Georgia gas station attendant with a reputation as a drinker and a bit of a hayseed, was approached by the Falls City Brewing Company to lend his name to the brew. It was a failure and may very well have been the final nail in the coffin for the brewery, which closed down after more than 70 years in business in 1978. Today, an unopened six-pack will set you back about $50 on eBay.

3. New Coke – 1985

Coca-Cola has touted its famous secret formula for decades, but in the mid-'80s, the company decided to shake things up. They tweaked the formula and introduced “New Coke” to a dubious public in 1985. The new, sweeter flavor was almost universally panned, and Coca-Cola, responding to customers’ negative reaction, re-introduced the original formula after less than three months, re-branding it “Coke Classic” in the process. Over the years there has been speculation that the switch was merely a sly marketing ploy, but the rumors are largely unsubstantiated. Collectors looking to own some of the ephemeral beverage can find bottles or cans on eBay ranging from $15 to over $100.

4. Surge – 1996-2002

Magnus Kolstad, Flickr

Surge was an attempt by Coca-Cola to compete for the “in-your-face attitude” territory that Pepsi’s Mountain Dew had staked out. A citrus-flavored soda, it was marketed as an energy drink of sorts, touting itself as “a fully-loaded citrus soda with carbos” (carbos!). The commercials featured teenagers doing “extreme” things like hurdling over ratty couches in a race to snag a single bottle. The drink developed a bit of a cult following, and seizing on the enduring demand, Coca-Cola reintroduced Surge in September 2014 as an exclusive on in 12-packs, which quickly sold out and found their way to eBay, where prices range from $8-15 per can to more than $50 for a 12-pack.

5. Josta – 1995-1999

Perhaps doomed by being slightly ahead of its time, Josta by PepsiCo is widely regarded as the first bona fide energy drink put out by a major beverage bottler. Launched in 1995, it was a fruity concoction containing guarana, one of the most highly-caffeinated plants known to man. There are no current active auctions, but recent prices online for a six-pack have hit $250.

6. Orbitz – 1997-1998

Before there was the online travel booking service, there was the soft drink. Orbitz was unleashed on the market by the Clearly Canadian Beverage Company in 1997, each bottle packed with tiny, brightly colored gelatinous balls, giving the drink a lava lamp-like appearance. The short-lived refreshment, which came in a variety of mixed fruit flavors, barely lasted a year. A bottle of Orbitz today will set you back around $20 on eBay—around the same price as an actual lava lamp.

7. Citra – 1996-2004

Citra was a grapefruit-dominant citrus-flavored soda put out by Coca-Cola in 1996. Citra graced store shelves for more than eight years before it was re-branded in 2004 as Fanta Citrus, which itself was shortly thereafter discontinued. The original Citra, however, was introduced in test markets in India last year to gauge interest for a wider national rollout. A can of the original U.S.-marketed Citra costs about $4 on eBay, with bottles going as high as $19.49.

8. Pepsi Blue – 2002-2004

A more recent belly flop in the world of soda was Pepsi Blue. As the name suggests, the soda was known for its glass cleaner-like blue tint. Pepsi pumped huge sums of money into promoting it, recruiting the likes of Britney Spears for television spots, and partnering with a host of corporate sponsors from the New York Mets to Volkswagen. While Americans’ taste for the berry-flavored soft drink never really took off, it remains a popular beverage in parts of Asia, and you can buy cans on ebay for around $5.

9. Pitch Black Mountain Dew – 2004-2005, 2011

Released in 2004 as a Halloween-themed version of the popular soda, Pitch Black Mountain Dew was a dark-purple, grape-flavored soft drink, promising “a blast of black grape.” Pitch Black also had a sequel—a sour version with the moniker Pitch Black II was released for a limited time for Halloween 2005. It also had a brief promotional reappearance in the summer of 2011. While discontinued in the U.S., Pitch Black fanatics can still get their hands on some in Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, the Philippines, or Singapore. Vintage cans on eBay go for about $8 each.

10. Jolt Cola – 1985-2009

bjoern, Flickr

The drink on our list with the longest staying power by far is Jolt Cola, which fueled countless all-night cram sessions and had kids bouncing off the walls at birthday parties for nearly 25 years. The super-caffeinated drink, put out by the defunct Wet Planet Beverages, boasted that it contained twice the caffeine of regular colas. As stiffer competition emerged in the energy drink market, Jolt tried numerous gimmicks to stay relevant like wacky noise-making packaging and a widely expanded selection of flavors, even lending its name to a line of gum. Wet Planet went belly-up in 2009, taking with it an iconic former staple of dorm fridges everywhere.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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
© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
Original image
© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.