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Carvel

A Cool History of Cookie Puss

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Carvel

When Greek immigrant Thomas Carvel started the Carvel College of Ice Cream Knowledge in the late 1940s, his intention was to educate his ice cream shop franchisees in the proper handling and distribution of the soft serve cones he had invented back in 1934. Famously strict about his scooping protocol, Carvel would grow upset if he discovered a store owner dished out only three ounces of vanilla to save money, not his required 3.5 ounces. Customers—especially kids—could tell the difference.

"Once a kid realizes he isn't getting his full cone, you've lost a customer," Carvel told The New York Times in 1985. "And that's the way you lose an entire chain."

Carvel’s rigid standards sometimes stirred up dissent, as in the case of the antitrust lawsuit filed in 1979 by franchisees over his insistence they buy Carvel-supplied napkins and other goods at inflated prices. But it was his ingenuity that led the 865-location Carvel chain to a stunning $300 million in sales by 1985.

That growth was spurred in large part by the company’s distinctive ice cream cakes, including Hug Me the Bear and Fudgie the Whale. But no confection drew as much attention as Cookie Puss, the cone-nosed birthday treat made famous in a series of 1970s commercials, a 1983 Beastie Boys song, and a legendary bit on The Howard Stern Show.

Although stores frequently tweaked the Cookie Puss design, it never strayed far from its original inspiration: the face of Carvel himself.

(L-R): Cookie Puss, Cookie O'Puss, Tom Carvel. Courtesy of Carvel

Carvel’s ice cream empire began with a flat tire. In 1934, he had borrowed $15 from his fiancée, Agnes, to get an ice cream truck on the road in Hartsdale, New York. The truck broke down, but customers didn’t seem to mind the softening ice cream—in fact, they seemed to love it.

Carvel jumped on the opportunity, cobbling a soft-serve machine together in his garage and obtaining a patent for it. When he realized that selling the machines led to frequent user error, he founded the Carvel Corporation in 1947, lining states—and his pockets—with Carvel-branded frozen treat storefronts.

Carvel recognized that it would take more than his name to help distinguish the stores from other ice cream shops. Their ice cream sandwiches were dubbed Flying Saucers in 1951; Carvel invited franchisees to brainstorm other unique product ideas.

In the early 1970s, an attendee at the College of Ice Cream Knowledge presented Carvel with a cake in a vaguely humanoid shape. With a cone to mimic Carvel’s bulbous nose, Carvel was impressed. He also realized anthropomorphized cakes would be a clever way to further the Carvel brand. An entire line—including Fudgie the Whale and Hug Me the Bear—were rolled out, 50-something ounces of frozen cake goodness that shops could decorate for personalized birthday greetings.

To spread the word, Carvel began featuring Cookie Puss in regional television advertisements throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Airing Saturday mornings and late at night, the ads were low-budget—Carvel refused to hire an ad agency—and featured Carvel himself as the narrator, his gravelly voice urging viewers to consider Fudgie for Father’s Day, Cookie Puss for all occasions, Cookie O’Puss for St. Patrick’s Day, Dumpy the Pumpkin for Halloween, and Cookie’s female counterpart, Cupie Puss, for whatever else might require massive sugar consumption.

Carvel even issued stuffed toys of Cookie Puss and Fudgie in 1985, hoping the $5.98 dolls would become Carvel’s version of Ronald McDonald, a food mascot that transcended corporate direction.

Even people who had never tried Cookie Puss were still aware of him thanks to the pervasive ads. The Beastie Boys broke through with "Cooky Puss," their 1983 single that was built around a real prank phone call made by Adam Horovitz to a Carvel store asking to speak to Cookie Puss. (One unconfirmed urban legend says Carvel was so annoyed by the album that he was considering legal action before his nephew, a Beasties fan, talked him down.)

In 1991, The Howard Stern Show dragged Cookie Puss back into the spotlight when Stern spent an inordinate length of time berating staffer Fred Norris for giving his mother a Cookie Puss for Mother’s Day. Using audio effects, Stern raised his pitch to resemble Cookie’s distinctive voice:

Stern: Hey, Fred. How come you didn’t get your mom a Fudgie the Whale? Because Cookie Puss is number one, right? ... I think you really didn’t think about your mother.

Norris: Thank you for judging me, Cookie Puss.

Stern: Tom Carvel was a weird guy. I wish he could have named me Rambo. Rambo the Cake.

Puss’s heyday came to an end in 1993, when Carvel’s new owners (Tom Carvel had sold the business in 1989 to investment bankers for $80 million) hired an actual ad agency to create a polished campaign. Carvel himself died in 1990, and was later the subject of a bizarre claim by his niece that he had been murdered so his aides could lay claim to the Cookie Puss fortune. The allegation was later dropped.

Today Puss, Fudgie, and the others can still be found at the 400-odd Carvel locations; the company’s slightly retroactive history currently claims that Cookie Puss is actually an alien from the Planet Birthday.

But whatever its fictional narrative might be, Cookie Puss still bears a strong resemblance to Tom Carvel. The inspiration for Dumpy the Pumpkin, however, remains unknown.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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iStock
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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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