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10 Things Amazon Pulled From Its Virtual Shelves

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Hundreds of millions of products are sold on Amazon every single day, but there are still some things that buyers must go elsewhere to find. The e-commerce giant maintains a list of restricted items, which explains why the products are not sold and offers alternatives that shoppers may be interested in, and occasionally something happens that makes them update that list. Here are ten other things that have been removed from the website over the years.

1. Buckyballs

In the summer of 2012, the Consumer Product Safety Commission sued the company that made Buckyballs and Buckycubes, magnetic toys used to build small geometric shapes. The CPSC said that the toys were a swallowing hazard for small children, and that the product warnings were not adequate. There were also several incidents in which older children accidentally ingested the tiny magnets. Amazon and a few others agreed to stop selling the toy, and after a two-year legal battle, it was banned and recalled.

2. Hindu God Leggings

During the height of the leggings craze in 2014, Amazon stopped a third-party company named Yizzam from selling pairs that featured Hindu gods and goddesses. The President of the Universal Society of Hinduism, Rajan Zed, filed a complaint and called for the removal of 11 designs. “Hindu gods and goddesses are meant to be worshipped in temples or home shrines, not to be worn around one’s legs, crotch and hips,” Zed told Betabeat.

3. A Video Game About Rape

In 2006, Japanese gaming company Illusion Soft released a pornographic video game called Rapelay that allowed the player to sexually assault women in various scenarios and environments. The game was originally sold in Japan and resurfaced in 2009 in the Amazon Marketplace. After several complaints and negative criticism of the game from a Member of Parliament, Amazon removed it from their websites.

4. Confederate Flags

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Most recently, Amazon joined the long list of retailers (including Walmart) that stop selling Confederate  Battle Flags and various other products that featured the image following the domestic terrorist attack on a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina. The site saw a spike in sales prior to removing the products, as the merchandise had already disappeared from other websites and brick-and-mortar stores.

5. Whale, shark, and dolphin meat

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A Change.org petition with over 200,000 signatures led to the removal of dolphin, shark, and whale meat from Amazon’s Japanese site back in 2012. The products are now permanently featured on the restricted list, along with furs from endangered animals, livestock, and bear bile. The teeth of all three animals can still be bought and sold on Amazon.

6. Pronged Dog Collars

While they’re still available on the US version of the site, metal dog collars with prongs were pulled from Amazon UK after petitions from animal welfare organizations in 2014. The controversial collars are used  during training sessions to correct the behavior of dogs through pain, but The Humane Society of the United States argues that they are ineffective and could cause the animal to attack. There are ongoing petitions to have the collars removed from every Amazon site.

7. Foie Gras

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Using very graphic visuals of ducks being force fed, the animal rights group Viva! started a campaign to get Amazon UK to stop the sale of the French delicacy. “Foie gras is mostly produced by imprisoning birds in cages so tiny they can’t move, by forcing a pipe down their throats and force feeding them until their livers swell to ten times their natural size,” said a representative of the organization. Amazon UK responded by removing over 100 products containing the food in 2013.

8. "I Love Hitler" Shirts

Amazon removed the offensive t-shirts the same day that the World Jewish Congress released a statement back in April of 2008. The group complained about the shirts and got them removed months prior, but for some reason Amazon relisted them that spring. Fans of the mustachioed dictator will now have to find another way to show their appreciation.

9. The ‘Pedophile’s Guide’ e-Book

Calling this a PR nightmare would be an understatement. CNN reported that Amazon was selling an ebook titled "The Pedophile's Guide to Love and Pleasure: A Child-Lover's Code of Conduct" back in 2010 and it was immediately removed the site. Prior to the report, Amazon had defended the sale of the book on the grounds that they did not wish to censor the author or any other author “simply because we or others believe their message is objectionable.” The outrage spread and was shared by many, including Dr. Phil and victim rights advocate and host of America’s Most Wanted, John Walsh.  

10. iPhone cases shaped like guns

A doomed idea from the start, iPhone cases that closely resemble handguns were removed from Amazon.com after just about every police department in the country expressed concerns. Senator Chuck Schumer reminded the public of the federal law banning the manufacturing of realistic fake weapons, and he pleaded with retailers not to sell the potentially illegal accessories.

See Also: 10 Things Walmart Has Yanked Off the Shelf

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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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