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How Mayor McCheese Helps Explain a Plausible Theory of Time Travel

McDonaldland, the setting of McDonald’s marketing efforts throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, was a magical place populated by talking cheeseburgers, fry goblins, and whatever Grimace was supposed to be. While it may seem like the stuff of delirious fantasy, McDonaldland stayed grounded in one regard: time travel. In fact, if you want to better understand a specific theoretical aspect of time travel endorsed by Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, look to McDonaldland—specifically, Mayor McCheese.

Between 1971 and 1985, Mayor McCheese served as the mayor of McDonaldland. While McCheese was a integral part of McDonaldland in its early years, he was slowly phased out and didn’t appear again in any official capacity for McDonald’s (save a single Sears advertisement) until 1999. Because he is a politician, there naturally was a scandal involved.

In 1970, ad agency Needham Harper & Steers approached Sid and Marty Krofft, the creators of H.R. Pufnstuf, about using characters from the hit children’s show for a campaign they were pitching to McDonald’s. Before any progress could be made, the agency told the Kroffts that the campaign had been canceled. However, the next year, McDonald’s aired the first of their McDonaldland commercials, and the Kroffts believed that the feel and design were directly plagiarized from the world they had created for H.R. Pufnstuf. They sued the McDonald’s Corporation, and much of their case revolved around Mayor McCheese’s similarities to Pufnstuf.

The case went to trial in 1973, and lawyers for McDonald’s argued Mayor McCheese was sufficiently different from the Kroffts’ creation:

"'Pufnstuf' wears what can only be described as a yellow and green dragon suit with a blue cummerbund from which hangs a medal which says 'mayor'. 'McCheese' wears a version of pink formal dress—'tails'—with knicker trousers. He has a typical diplomat's sash on which is written 'mayor', the 'M' consisting of the McDonald's trademark of an 'M' made of golden arches."

Neither the jury nor an appeals court bought this defense, and the case was settled in 1977 with the McDonald’s Corporation ordered to pay damages to the Kroffts. McDonaldland had become extremely popular by then, but it was around the time of this legal headache that McDonald’s started to move away from the campaign. One of the first casualties was Mayor McCheese, who stopped getting speaking roles in ads and was seen less and less until 1985, when he appeared in his final commercial for the fast food company (it also starred Mary Lou Retton).

Mayor McCheese appears in the McDonaldland universe only once more, and his presence is thanks to a time machine (and theoretical physics).

In 1998, McDonald’s commissioned Klasky Csupo, the production company behind popular shows like Rugrats and Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, to make a series of direct-to-video cartoons based around a rebranded Ronald McDonald (he was skinnier and had sideburns). Six episodes of The Wacky Adventures of Ronald McDonald were released on VHS. In the penultimate episode, “Have Time, Will Travel,” Ronald and company discover a time machine. It is through this time machine that we finally reunite with Mayor McCheese:

“This was part of McDonaldland … in the ‘70s,” Ronald says as he steps out of the time machine and into a disco where Mayor McCheese is partying.

“Well I’ll be a burger in bellbottoms,” Mayor McCheese says. “I just learned the latest dance craze: The Hustle!” McCheese then performs a rather accurate version of The Hustle for 15 full seconds.

Now, if you are familiar with Stephen Hawking’s work on space-time and how it relates to humanity’s potential to engage in time travel, you will know that this encounter with Mayor McCheese recalls a major paradox: “If sometime in the future we learn to travel in time,” Hawking writes, “why hasn't someone come back from the future to tell us how to do it?”

According to Hawking, there are plausible explanations for this:

“A possible way to reconcile time travel, with the fact that we don't seem to have had any visitors from the future, would be to say that it can occur only in the future. In this view, one would say space-time in our past was fixed, because we have observed it, and seen that it is not warped enough, to allow travel into the past.”

Carl Sagan made a similar argument during an interview with NOVA in the 1990s: “Maybe backward time travel is possible, but only up to the moment that time travel is invented. We haven't invented it yet, so they can't come to us. They can come to as far back as whatever it would be, say A.D. 2300, but not further back in time.”

So, time travel may indeed be possible, but you can’t go back any further than the point at which the time machine was first invented. This kind of thinking would make Ronald McDonald and Mayor McCheese’s disco reunion impossible unless the time machine had already been invented by the 1970s. Well, it just so happens that McDonaldland did have a time machine, and they had it at the precise moment for this scenario to be plausible.

In the 1975 McDonaldland commercial “Time Machine,” Ronald, McCheese, and Grimace encounter a time machine. The year is important here. When they go back to the ‘70s in The Wacky Adventures of Ronald McDonald, Mayor McCheese says he “just” learned a new dance, "The Hustle." And when did Van McCoy release his smash hit single “The Hustle”? You guessed it: 1975.

Mayor McCheese’s return is only made possible because McDonaldland adheres to the strict laws of time travel. It's the reason two pieces of McDonald’s marketing ephemera made nearly a quarter-century apart and by different creative teams could remain so in sync. It also could be why McDonald’s wasn’t sued again, for this was the same Mayor McCheese from 1975, two years before the lawsuit with the Kroffts was settled.

Science is so elegant when it's simple like this.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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