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5 Fictional Companies Owned by Microsoft

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Microsoft runs an entire corporate empire you might not know about, but are probably hosting somewhere on your computer. They are the companies of Access and SharePoint, of Excel and SQL Server, and comprise all of that sample data included to give you some idea of how the software works.

1. Contoso

According to Businessweek, Sony has a financial services division that mostly sells life insurance policies. This division is worth more than the rest of the company combined. As one analyst put it, “Sony is a life insurance company with a money-losing TV business.”

Clearly, then, a company like Contoso Ltd. is not without precedent. There’s Contoso Bank, with divisions in the United States and Australia, and an arm in Singapore called Asean Bank. Contoso Pharmaceuticals is spread across the United States, with offices in Denver, Chicago (where its IT center is located), Atlantic, Sacramento, and its corporate headquarters in New York City.

The IT department of Contoso Pharmaceuticals alone supports 195,000 users, which suggests a total headcount somewhere in that area, including contractors and interns. (For comparison, Verizon Communications employs a total of 193,900 people; Disney “only” employs 156,000.) It’s hard to estimate how many people fall under the combined corporate empire, but it likely blows United Technologies—which builds both elevators (as Otis) and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters for the U.S. Army—out of the water.

2. The Volcano Coffee Company

The Volcano Coffee Company is renowned not only for its blends, which continue a legacy “reminiscent” of ancient Mo’a Mana tribal ways, but also for its forward-thinking embrace of technology. Its owners have developed an InterNET Home Page for the World Wide Web. They’ve even accepted sponsorship by way of a rectangular animated Compuserve GIF.

The company’s name derives from a little known botanical fact that coffee plants grow natively only in the volcanic region of South Sea islands. The Volcano Coffee Company wants you to know that the coffee fields “yield the plumpest, most flavor-filled coffee beans in the world.” Coffee mugs are available from the online gift shop for a mere $25, which means 20 years after Volcano set the web standard, nobody’s figured out how to make and sell a cheap mug online.

3. Northwind Traders

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According to its business plan, the mission of Northwind Traders is “to become the premier provider of adventure vacations for 25- to 35- year-old professionals.” And the company seems to be well on its way. It started as a clothing store employing seven people. (Last year, the retail arm of the company earned profits of $200,400 on sales of $1,419,500.) Today, Northwind employs 200 people, with a goal of adding another 420 employees in its first year as a travel agency, and raising the total to 1400 the following year.

Before fully divesting itself of the clothing store, the company intends to raise $83,500 from outside sources, making it the most efficient company in Seattle. Still, before investing, one really ought to consider the area. Because Northwind is located in a technology hub of the nation, one has to wonder how the company plans to make everyone forget about the Internet and companies with William Shatner as their front man, to say nothing of Margie’s Travel, another Microsoft baby.

(Those of you downloading your business school essays from the Internet should be warned that ABN Traders has a suspiciously similar business plan to Northwind, as does Aussie-One Travel Agency, which in a twist has a partnership with Margie’s Travel.)

4. World Wide Importers

Just as its name suggests, World Wide Importers imports things from around the world. The company specifically focuses on clothing, which is then sold to U.S. retailers. World Wide Importers employs 4500 people, which is just about the same number as Groupon. Really. (I have no idea what those people are doing all day.) World Wide Importers has locations in three cities: Chicago, where marketing, research, and HR operate; Boston, for sales, shipping, and inventory; and Denver, for customer service.

5. Blue Yonder Airlines

Frequent flyers should go ahead and bookmark Blue Yonder Airlines. It is “the leading adventure charter airline in the US!” with “the industry’s best safety record.” More importantly, though, it has an on-time-every-time guarantee, which has to be the worst business decision in the history of enterprise, but the best deal a traveler is ever going to find. There’s no hedging here, either. Their guarantee reads: “If we fail to depart or arrive on time, we will pay for your accommodations.” Before you start eyeing a Skyloft at the MGM Grand, however, you should probably take note that Blue Yonder has a 100 percent on-time record.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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