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ABC

13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Shark Tank

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ABC

By the standards of reality television, ABC’s Shark Tank (Fridays, 9 p.m. EST) plays it pretty straight. Entrepreneurs with promising business ideas are shuttled to a sound stage in Los Angeles where they pitch a panel of investors—including Mark Cuban, “Queen of QVC” Lori Greiner, and the occasional Guest Shark—hoping to convince them their product is worth their time and venture capital.

Even if the Sharks decline, getting a chance to display a product in front of the show’s estimated six million viewers is invaluable. We asked some former contestants and one Shark deals curator about the pressure to perform, the merchandise with the best chance of succeeding, and why every segment taping begins with a very awkward moment of silence.

1. YOU WILL PROBABLY NEVER APPEAR ON THIS SHOW.

Owing to the allure of getting 10 minutes to advertise your product on network television for free, Shark Tank can receive more than 100,000 applications every season. Some are submitted via the show's website, while other entrepreneurs appear during open casting calls to “audition” for casting agents looking to fill the 100-odd slots for the show’s 31-episode cycles. “Watching people on television gives everyone a sense of, ‘I could do that,’” says TJ Hale, the host of Shark Tank Podcast, which follows up on contestants and keeps a log of show statistics. “But the odds are against you.”

2. CONTESTANTS CAN SPEND OVER AN HOUR IN FRONT OF THE SHARKS.

While product pitches are typically aired in 10-minute segments, business owners are often hashing out details with the Sharks for an hour or more. “The first time, I was in there 45 minutes,” says Aaron Marino, who appeared in a season four episode with his Alpha M image consultation business and will appear a second time in this season’s finale on May 20. “The second time was an hour, hour-and-a-half. When you get into the minutiae of business numbers, they cut a lot of that stuff out.”

3. ONCE YOU’RE ON SET, YOU CAN’T SPEAK FOR 30 SECONDS.

Business owners who walk through the twin doors and onto the area rug in front of the Sharks don’t get to begin talking immediately: they have to stand in silence for 30 seconds while the production crew adjusts their cameras for establishing shots. “You’re just standing there,” says Eric Bandholz, whose Beardbrand line of facial hair products vied for a deal in season six. “The Sharks are smiling awkwardly. The whole thing is pretty intense.”

4. THERE’S NO ONE YELLING “CUT.”

Once a pitch starts, it’s rarely (if ever) interrupted for anything, with the Sharks firing off questions and talking over one another to create a perfect storm of faux-boardroom anxiety for the contestant. “There’s no stopping,” Marino says. “If you mess up, you have to keep going. You have all these very dominant personalities going after you, talking over themselves. It’s sensory overload.”

5. HAVING A KICKSTARTER HELPS A LOT.

According to Hale, approximately one in four contestants wind up being “scouted” by producers, meaning they’ll be contacted by the show with a cold call. That interest often stems from having a Kickstarter that helps spread word of your product. “It’s kind of like validation,” Hale says of raising capital through crowdfunding. “You might be looked upon more favorably.”

6. THERE’S NO GUARANTEE YOUR SEGMENT WILL AIR.

Even though Shark Tank films over 100 pitches per season, the show offers no promises when it comes to airing taped segments: a handful will wind up unused. That means contestants who sink money into advertising or inventory expecting a “Shark Tank bump” could put themselves at risk if they don’t make the final cut, which they might not find out for up to a year after taping. “You get notice you’re going to be on air about two weeks before the episode,” says Bandholz. “You don’t want to invest too much into your business because you could wind up sabotaging yourself if you don’t make it on.”

7. THERE’S NO FRATERNIZING WITH THE SHARKS.

Entrepreneurs are taken from their hotel to a waiting area, and then to the set. No Sharks are introduced to them prior to their segment. “There’s no access to them whatsoever,” Marino says. “They just film one right after another. I did get to pee next to Robert Herjavec one time, though. All I said was, ‘Hey, see you soon!’”

8. EVERYONE HAS TO SEE A PSYCHIATRIST.

Once entrepreneurs are done filming, they’re immediately whisked off-set and into a meeting with a show-appointed psychiatrist for an off-air evaluation. “They just want to work through how you’re feeling,” says Bandholz. “I’ve heard from other contestants that they can be devastated by their performance, or by what the appearance might mean for their business. It’s a very intense emotional roller coaster.”

9. MOST OF THE ON-AIR DEALS DON’T GO THROUGH.

While contestants who accept an offer from one or more of the Sharks seem to have it made, it’s little more than a handshake deal. Owing to the due diligence process, Hale estimates that more than two-thirds of deals that are agreed upon in the show fall through. “It’s more like a first date,” he says. “You go back and find things you don’t like. Sometimes the deal terms change.”

10. REPEATS CAN NET BUSINESSES A BUMP IN SALES.

While most of the business boost from appearing on Shark Tank comes during the first run of the episode, the show’s presence on CNBC in repeats doesn’t hurt. “It’s never the same as the initial airing, but we do see a bump,” says Bandholz. “Sometimes they’ll show it overseas. We’ve seen orders from when the show is airing in Spain and Portugal.”

11. WANT A DEAL? THINK FOOD AND FASHION.

While contestants have demonstrated everything from construction site amusement parks to bed warmers, Hale’s numbers point to the food and beverage industry as being prime Shark bait. Out of the 107 deals Hale has logged, nearly half have been in either the food or fashion and beauty categories. But, Hale cautions, each Shark has his or her own preferences that might not align with the numbers. “Daymond John isn’t so interested in apparel anymore,” he says. “And Mark Cuban is probably not going to do pet food.”

12. THEIR COMPETITORS CAN BENEFIT, TOO.

When he received notice that Beardbrand would be featured on the show, Bandholz discovered a surprising—and unwelcome—side effect of the publicity. “Competitors will see that and start advertising more,” he says. “They’ll buy ads on the show for competing products.”

13. PEOPLE MATTER MORE THAN PRODUCT.

Hale recently interviewed the inventors of the Slyde Handboard, a swimming apparatus that can surf waves using only the wearer’s hand. “They applied for the show three times, and they told me that both times they focused on the product, they didn’t make it,” he says. “The third time, they made themselves the narrative, part of the product. You need to have suspense, intrigue, humor, tension. You can have the cure for cancer and if you’re boring, it doesn’t matter. In the end, it’s reality TV.”

All images courtesy of ABC unless otherwise credited.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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