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Doll Wars: When Barbie Dragged Sindy Into Court

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iStock // Getty

The two women stood stark naked in court, men wrapping measuring tapes around their hips, busts, and shoulders. Normally sporting long, flowing locks, the two had been stripped of every strand so their bald heads could be compared. Absent any apparel or accessories, it would be up to a Dutch judge to determine whether or not the two looked so much alike that one would have to be destroyed.

On one side of the courtroom was Sindy, a vivacious UK fashion plate that had just been exported by Hasbro; on the other stood Barbie, Mattel’s flagship blonde. Reconfigured for international distribution, Sindy bore a striking resemblance to Barbie—so much so that Mattel felt compelled to haul her into court on accusations of counterfeiting, copyright infringement, and whatever else they could use to challenge her existence. Sindy, their lawyers charged, was nothing more than Barbie’s “unwanted sister.”

At stake was a majority share in the billion-dollar fashion doll market. Despite her congenial personality, Barbie couldn’t afford to play nice.

Sindy's distinctive 1970s-era design (L) and her alleged Barbie-influenced makeover (R). Smirky Becca via Flickr, ronholplc via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Ever since Barbie made her toy aisle debut in 1959, Hasbro has looked on with envy. Accessorized with hundreds of outfits, cars, homes, and boyfriends, she helped catapult Mattel to record revenue in the 1960s and beyond, swatting down challengers with ease.

Eager to mimic her success, Hasbro tried a doll based on The Flying Nun television series; a model named Leggy came later. In the 1980s, they thought Jem and the Holograms would finally topple Barbie from her perch. None produced a single bead of sweat on her tiny, perfect brow.

Having failed to produce a contender themselves, Hasbro decided to look at existing licenses. In the UK, they noticed a doll named Sindy, a demure toy with a sideways glance who sped around on a moped (or pony) and embodied the kind of high-fashion couture originating out of London in the 1960s. By 1985, Sindy was so popular she had captured 80 percent of the doll market in Britain.

Hasbro approached her owner, Pedigree Toys, offering to manufacture and distribute the dolls all over the world. (Notably, Pedigree had once turned down an offer by Mattel to license Barbie for the UK.) The company agreed, and Hasbro executive Stephen Hassenfeld believed they finally had a product that would successfully compete against Barbie.

Sindy’s proportions, however, would have to be reconsidered. Almost cherubic in Britain, her figure would be enhanced for worldwide appeal. Her legs grew longer and slimmer, and her chest began to protrude in a way that recalled Barbie’s sculpted curves. No longer confined to overcast London, she even got a tan—all the better to replicate her California-loving competition.

During a 1988 European toy exhibition, Mattel CEO John Amerman caught wind of Hasbro’s Hassenfeld showing off a Barbie clone to buyers. While Mattel typically laughed off attempts to cut into Barbie’s market share, Sindy was different by virtue of not appearing to be very different. There was a real possibility that consumers, especially young ones, would confuse the two. Sindy even sported an all-pink packaging that had become synonymous with Barbie.

Agitated, Amerman confronted Hassenfeld and told him that pursuing Sindy would never be in his best interests.

Hassenfeld’s reply was chilly. “No one,” he said, “tells me what to do.”

In March of that year, Mattel’s lawyers dispatched a terse letter demanding Hasbro destroy or turn over everything related to Sindy by April 7: sculpts, stock, and plans. But Hasbro had already spent millions in development and advertising and wasn’t about to be cowed. They ignored the deadline, and began shipping Sindy across the globe.

Everywhere she went, Mattel’s lawyers followed. Sindy was impounded in France, where courts were persuaded by Mattel’s argument of a counterfeit Barbie. Other countries allowed her to be sold without reservation.

In a series of court cases, lawyers for both sides presented their respective dolls for the court’s examination. In one bit of testimony, the size and depth of Sindy’s nostrils became a point of contention. It was argued that Sindy’s nose was more pointed, with deeper nasal passages. Crucially, Hasbro’s sculptors had not altered her chest to the point where her breasts were as disproportionately large as Barbie’s, and the company asserted that was enough to make the two distinct.

By 1992, millions of dollars in legal fees had been spent arguing over the size and shape of doll breasts, with no end in sight.

Sindy in happier times. Sindy.com

That year, a representative for Hasbro named Barry Alperin requested a meeting with two of Mattel’s top executives, including newly installed CEO Jill Barad. Opening a suitcase, Alperin revealed five distinct, disembodied Sindy heads. He requested that Barad choose one that she felt was a comfortable enough distance from Barbie’s features.

Barad chose a Sindy head Mattel could live with. The legal battle was over.

Hasbro never had great success in the U.S. with Sindy, which went through several iterations before being dropped in 1998. Pedigree re-launched her in 2006 and again via a licensing agreement with the Tesco store chain in late 2016, taking care to present a doll and personality far removed from Barbie’s. At 18 inches, she towers over her former rival and sticks with sneakers or sandals. No heels, and no dream house.

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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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