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Charles David Head and Ron Fowler

The True Story of the Coca-Cola Knockoff Koca-Nola

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Charles David Head and Ron Fowler

Thomas Austin was not a happy man. An entrepreneur who had made a fair share of money in the coal mining business, he had opened up a pharmacy in Atlanta, Georgia at the turn of the century. Business was good enough, but Austin was a little perturbed at his passive role as a dispenser of soda. Customers streamed in looking for bottles buried in ice or on tap, especially Coca-Cola, the most famous and most widely-distributed of them all. It was sugar water. What could be so hard about perfecting that?

In Atlanta, Austin was literally down the street from Coke’s headquarters. He wanted a bigger share of the profits, so he decided to start bottling his own. In 1904, he began to sell a beverage he called Koca-Nola.

The carbonated, glass-bottled pop was an overnight success for the reason Austin anticipated: It was easily confused for Coke, right down to the crown-topped bottle and distinctive embossed labeling. For customers in some territories who lacked the ability to read, it looked virtually identical. Austin was soon making deals with bottlers across the country—more than 40 states in all—to market his soda, which was said to be tasty and gave thirsty patrons quite an energy boost.

According to Koca-Nola historian Charles David Head, who authored the book A Head’s Up on Koca-Nola, Austin was more successful than most of the Coke impostors of the era (which numbered more than 150 in total) in part because he made advertising a priority. “He had the money to invest in ads,” Head tells mental_floss. “Everywhere you looked, there was Koca-Nola on matches, postcards, and thermometers.” Austin even produced promotional material using art from well-known illustrator Philip Boileau, lending Koca-Nola some legitimacy beyond its liberal use of Coke’s brand awareness.

In addition to a serious marketing push, Austin enticed bottlers with offers of free samples they could return for a refund if they failed to sell. Koca-Nola enlisted dozens of loyal franchisees this way, peddling the 5-cent, 8-ounce drinks in local markets and targeting some of their ads toward the flood of immigrants entering the country in the early 20th century. “Coke was a little upper crust,” Head says. “Koca-Nola, well, anyone was free to buy it.”

From 1906 to 1909, Koca-Nola was one of the best-selling sodas on the market. Unfortunately, its aggressive advertising would soon become a significant detriment to the company’s long-term prospects. Promising customers Koca-Nola was “dopeless”—many sodas of the era, including Coke, contained then-legal cocaine from coca leaves or from an extract solution—was misleading. When the U.S. government tested Koca-Nola in both New Orleans and Washington, D.C. in 1908, officials found it was positive for 1/200th of a grain of cocaine, or twice the normal amount typically found in “pick me up” drinks of the era. 

The issue was not the drug itself, but that Koca-Nola had “adulterated” its label by not disclosing the full contents. Austin denied the charges, insisting Koca-Nola was free of the stimulant. But a U.S. District Court in Atlanta was swayed by prosecutors and their expert witnesses, who all testified the soda had tested positive for enough cocaine to introduce a habit in customers who consumed five or more bottles a day.

Though the drug was found in many sodas on the market, Koca-Nola became the industry’s scapegoat. After a guilty verdict was rendered in 1909, enforcers for the recently-enacted Pure Food and Drugs Law went after other soda manufacturers for similar infractions before cocaine was banned outright in 1914. Carbonated beverages had to rely on caffeine for a boost; Coca-Cola’s unique bottle shape, patented in 1916, helped even illiterate customers distinguish the brand from its imitators. (In 2013, the company denied cocaine had ever been an ingredient.)

Koca-Nola hobbled along for several more years, living on in some local markets where it was still popular, before disappearing entirely in 1918. Of all Coke’s early copycats, it might have been the most stubborn, and the most successful. “People would crave more because it had twice as much cocaine in it,” Head says. “It had to have quite a kick back then.”

All images courtesy of Charles David Head and Ron Fowler.

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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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