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A Bubbly History of the Heart-Shaped Hot Tub

Penthouse—the most prominent authority on such matters—once called it “a sexual Disneyland.” It housed a gift shop containing adult novelty items. A stark-naked statue of Apollo greeted visitors in the lobby entrance. A “social director” was on hand to foster banter among couples and make off-color jokes to loosen their libidos. Its rooms were wall-carpeted and mirrored.

It was Cove Haven, and for decades it was the premier Poconos resort destination for newlyweds across the northeast. Its popularity was chiefly attributed to two things: the marketing acumen of co-founder Morris B. Wilkins, and the iconic, charmingly tacky hot tub he designed that was shaped like a heart.

Cove Haven Resorts

Born to Russian immigrants in 1925, Wilkins was an unlikely savior of the honeymoon hospitality industry. After a stint as a submariner in World War II, the Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania native started working as an electrician. Business went well until Hurricane Diane swept up his office space and equipment in 1955, leveling all of his material goods. Settling in as a freelancer, he and pal Harold “Obie” O’Brien were working on renovations for a Poconos-area hotel when they both noticed the accommodations were absolutely awful. The men believed they could do better, so they purchased an 18-room resort, the Hotel Pocopaupac in Lakeville, in 1958.

Since the end of the war, gas shortages had led to more and more newlyweds taking the shorter trip to the Poconos—a four-county area about the size of Delaware—rather than Niagara Falls. What was missing was a sense of levity or fun. Wilkins and O’Brien changed the name of the hotel to Cove Haven and promptly began renovating the property so that it might appeal to the increasingly provocative tastes of 1960s couples. Ostentatious accents replaced neutral colors; the room, he believed, would become the star attraction for those seeking a reservation.

But Wilkins needed time. When business was slow, he’d conserve electricity by holding business meetings in the dark. And despite his ability to recognize how hospitality would need to change, it took a few years for him to figure out exactly how.

According to “Honest” Phil Policare, Cove Haven's "Chief Excitement Officer," Wilkins and O’Brien had their epiphany one night in 1963, when the two were struggling to cart a round hot tub down a flight of stairs. In order to make the turn at the bottom, the men temporarily pushed in one side of the flexible material and noticed it resembled a heart. Other accounts mention that Wilkins dreamed up the notion in the middle of the night, sketching a heart over a concrete floor.

However he came to the idea, Wilkins poured concrete for the first six heart-shaped tubs himself, with dozens more added as Cove Haven continued to expand to its eventual size of 236 rooms.

The Sweetheart Tub was tiled in red, comfortable enough for two, and featured mirrors on the walls. Word of mouth quickly spread, as did Wilkins's particular design aesthetic. Soon, Cove Haven was home to guests—couples only—who came to sightsee the attractions in their quarters: circular or heart-shaped beds, multi-level rooms, and private swimming pools.

Eager to expand, the partners sold Cove Haven to Caesars Resorts in 1969. (O’Brien passed away five years later in a plane crash.) Wilkins promptly opened two more Poconos-area resorts, just in time for an explosion of popularity after the heart-shaped tub was photographed for a 1971 Life magazine spread about the opening of Interstate 80. The exposure was so positive that Wilkins had to borrow $10,000 the following week just so that he had enough liquid cash to print more resort brochures.

That single photo in Life helped make the heart-shaped tub synonymous with honeymoon accommodations, encapsulating everything anyone would ever need to know about the atmosphere in the region. As Wilkins watched his Poconos empire grow through the next few decades, he became known as the innovator behind the beautifully kitschy newlywed experience.

Cove Haven Resorts

With the success of the heart-shaped tub driving business, Wilkins came up a more ambitious idea: He wanted to install a 7-foot-tall champagne glass in his suites that could double as a whirlpool. It would be novel, look terrific in advertising, and create a little bit of mystery: without a ladder, how could couples even get in?

Wilkins's financiers at Caesars weren’t interested. They dismissed the idea as silly and let it percolate in the hotelier's head for nearly a decade before giving in. Debuting in 1984, the champagne glass whirlpool became another Poconos and Cove Haven trademark, appearing to be balanced on a thin stem while couples marinated in the bubbly water. Rooms featuring the glass were booked as far as 18 months out. (The secret to getting in was simple: the living room where it was located was sunken, and guests would climb in from the second-floor bedroom.)

Business continued booming through the 1980s. Rooms went for $380 for two nights, and Wilkins was hailed as a hospitality legend. Heart-shaped everything seemed to pervade the Poconos, with a quarter of its 16,000 beds cut into the novelty design.

Then airline travel got cheaper, and Vegas got wiser. As airfares went down and rooms in other destination locations began to resemble the Wilkins model, attendance dropped. Several Poconos-area resorts were closed by 1999, the year Wilkins retired.

Today, roughly 437 heart-shaped hot tubs remain in the three Cove Haven resorts, with an untold number installed around the country. While Wilkins had managed to patent his champagne whirlpool, he was unsuccessful in obtaining the same protection for the tub. For $2395, anyone can have one ready to be installed in their own personal lover’s retreat.

Wilkins died at age 90 in 2015. Though he left behind four children, it could be argued he was responsible for many, many more.

"I don’t know how many babies we’ve conceived here," Wilkins told The Washington Post in 1988. "It must be an army."

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
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!

Original image
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
Original image
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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