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5 Cars That Became Metaphors (deserved or not)

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1. Edsel= Failure

The Ford Edsel has become a metaphor for commercial marketing failure. It was manufactured from 1958 til 1960. The failure of the Edsel brand is attributed to a combination of factors: an overhyped premiere, the perceived high price, an economic recession in 1957, ambiguous consumer targeting, the consumer shift toward smaller, fuel-efficient cars, and the perception of the car and its name as "ugly." Future Secretary of Defense Robert McNamera, a Ford executive at the time, changed the Edsel design and slashed its advertising budget, eventually burying the program. Due to its commercial failure, the Edsel was perceived for a time as a "lemon", but the car was as well-built as its contemporaries at Ford. The brand lost money, the equivalent of $2 billion in today's dollars, but the Edsel didn't damage Ford's overall profits.

2. Corvair=Unsafe
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The Chevrolet Corvair was produced from 1960 to 1969, in response to the public's demand for smaller cars (the demand that helped derail the Edsel). The car (avialable in several models) was a sales success, selling over 200,000 units its first few years. In 1965, a little-known consumer advocate named Ralph Nader published a book entitled Unsafe at Any Speed. The book charged the American automobile industry with active resistance to the incorporation of safety features in cars, such as seat belts. The Corvair was only mentioned in one chapter of the book, but its reputation and sales slumped as a result. GM improved its design after the book was published, but also investigated and harassed Nader, who later sued. Only 6.000 Corvairs were produced for 1969, the last model year.

In what may be the automotive industry's greatest irony, NHTSA, the federal agency created from Nader's "consumer advocacy," investigated the Corvair and issued a report in 1971 clearing the car's design, two years after the car went out of production.

3. Pinto=Volatile
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The Ford Pinto had a tendency to explode. Forbes Magazine included it in their list of the Worst Cars of All Time. Two million Pintos were sold between 1971 and 1980, and 27 people died when the gas tanks ignited in rear-end collisions. The magazine Mother Jones wrote an expose on the Pinto in 1977. The real scandal stemmed from the Pinto Memo, which calculated the cost of fixing the known design problems in the fuel tank area at $121 million, versus the cost of projected lawsuits, estimated at $50 million. The Pinto's reputation became so bad that it is used in pop culture as a reference for something ready to explode. In the movie Speed, Sandra Bullock's character was asked if she could drive a bus filled with explosives. She replied, "Oh sure, it's just like driving a really big Pinto."

4. DeLorean=Overhyped
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The DeLorean has such a wild story that it became more than one metaphor. Built from 1981 to 1983, it was the dream project of John Z. DeLorean. A Detroit native and engineer and executive at GM, DeLorean founded the DeLorean Motor Company with the help of high-profile investors and huge financial incentives to build his factory in Northern Ireland. Only 3,000 of the strange-looking and expensive cars sold the first year, nowhere near DeLorean's projections. Trying to pull the company out of British government receivership, DeLorean became involved in a cocaine-smuggling scheme and was arrested in 1982. He was eventually found not guilty due to entrapment, but the damage to his reputation, and to his car, was already done.

260delorean.jpgThe car starred in the Back to the Future movies as a time machine. The DeLorean was chosen because it looks like a UFO. In the first film, Doc said he used it because it was stylish, but Marty was puzzled at the choice because the car was a commercial flop. Around 6,000 DeLorean models survive today, and you can get one for less than its 1981 selling price of $26,000. Parts are hard to find.

Update: Two sources of DeLorean parts (from the comments) are DeLorean Motor Company (Texas) and DeLorean Car Show.

5. Yugo=Shoddy
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The Yugo was sold in the United States from 1984 to 1992. Priced under $4,000 at its US debut, the car sold very well until UN sanctions against Yugoslavia forced the end of the import program. The Yugos manufactured for export to the US had higher standards than those for domestic use, but the Yugo still gained a reputation for shoddy construction and unreliability, earning Car Talk's Worst Car of the Millenium survey. The Yugo is still sold today in the former Yugoslavia under its European name, Zastava Koral.

Could you suggest other cars that could be metaphors?

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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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