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10 Things Created Over a Couple of Beers

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After a few beers at the bar, even the most ridiculous ideas start to seem like The One That Will Make Millions. Sometimes, though, those ideas actually pan out. Here are a few reasons to take your next tipsy brainstorming session a little more seriously.

1. Southwest Airlines

In 1966, lawyer Herb Kelleher’s client, Rollin King, owned a small commuter air service in San Antonio. King and his banker had been discussing the idea of running a quick commuter service between San Antonio, Dallas and Houston. They pitched the idea to Kelleher, and the triangular flight route was sketched out on a cocktail napkin. Since then, Southwest has expanded to a few more cities.

2. Pet Rock

It totally makes sense that the Pet Rock was conceived of after a few rounds, doesn’t it? After a bar conversation about what a commitment pets can be, Gary Dahl spent two weeks writing The Pet Rock Training Manual and started selling the low-maintenance pal for $3.95 not long after.

Once the Pet Rock fad had run its course, inventor Gary Dahl tried to recreate the magic by opening up his own bar, “so I can sit around and get ideas.” After ideas like “Sand Breeding Kits” and “Red China Dirt” were unsuccessful, he ended up creating his own advertising agency.

3. A Few Good Men

Aaron Sorkin wasn’t throwing back drinks when he started writing his play A Few Good Men; he was slinging them. As the bartender at Broadway’s Palace Theater, Sorkin organized his thoughts on napkins while patrons were watching shows. “I wrote A Few Good Men during the first act of La Cage aux Folles . . . I would come home with my pockets stuffed full of cocktail napkins,” he told CBS.

4. Marine Corps

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On November 10, 1775, a committee of the Continental Congress met at Tun Tavern in Philadelphia. The mission? To establish two Battalions of men prepared to fight for independence on sea or shore. The tavern’s manager was declared the first official recruiter. Legend has it, Marines toast to the memory of Tun Tavern every year on November 10.

5. Shark Week

In a recent article in The Atlantic, executive producer Brooke Runnette said the idea for Shark Week "was definitely scribbled down on the back of a cocktail napkin" at a bar during a post-work brainstorming session that included Discovery Channel execs John Hendricks, Clark Bunting, and Steve Cheskin.

"One of them said something like, 'You know what would be awesome? Shark Week!' And somebody in that nexus scribbled it down on a napkin," said Runnette.

Less-colorful origin stories claim the idea for Shark Week was hatched "in a discussion about programming strategies." But as Runnette notes, "an idea in a bar comes from many fathers."

6. Quidditch

J.K. Rowling created Quidditch in a pub after having a fight with her then-boyfriend. "In my deepest, darkest soul," she said, "I would quite like to see him hit by a bludger."

7. Buffalo Wings

When the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York, accidentally received a shipment of chicken wings instead of chicken parts in 1964, they made lemonade (figuratively, of course). Teressa Bellissimo coated the wings in a sauce of her own recipe, then served them with bleu cheese and celery, because that's what she had on hand. They were a hit with her son and his group of friends, and the Buffalo wing was born. The Anchor still serves wings in that secret special sauce.

8. Farrington B.

Doesn’t ring a bell? I bet it does when you see it:

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Yep, those squared-off letters and numbers that look back at you from almost every card in your wallet were invented in a bar at the Waldorf-Astoria. David H. Shepard, who invented the optical card reader, created the Farrington B numeric font to try to combat the smudging and smearing that would inevitably occur at gas pumps, one of the first places optical character recognition would be used. These days, credit card companies could use Comic Sans for the account number if they really wanted to; all of the pertinent information is gathered from the magnetic strip on the back. But Farrington B is kind of tradition.

9. The Gift of the Magi

Some of the best literature in history has been created after a drink or two; just ask Ernest Hemingway. William Sydney Porter, better known by his pen name, O. Henry, was a fan of this writing method as well. In the early 1900s, Porter, who lived just down the street, parked himself in Pete's Tavern - the third booth from the window, to be exact - and penned The Gift of the Magi.

10. The Ironman Triathlon

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It wasn’t in a bar, but it was over a couple of beers at an awards banquet. At the medal ceremony for the Oahu Perimeter Relay in 1977, John and Judy Collins realized that if they did the 2.4-mile Waikiki Rough Water Swim, then the 115-mile Round the Island bike race minus a few miles, they would be close to the start line of the Honolulu Marathon. Wouldn’t it be fun to do all three? The first to finish would be called an Ironman. Yep, that’s a drunken idea if I’ve ever heard one.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]