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9 Absurd Transportation Modes that Never Got into Gear

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by Kenn McCracken

1. The Monowheel

In 1869, French craftsman Rousseau of Marseilles built the first in history's line of unsuccessful monocycles. Sitting inside the monowheel, a rider steered the contraption by shifting his or her weight in the desired direction. As if that wasn't difficult enough, the massive outer wheel remained directly in the rider's line of sight at all times. Braking was also potentially hazardous, as stopping too abruptly would cause the rider to be propelled forward along with the outer wheel. But perhaps the biggest strike against the monowheel was the immediate comparison of any rider to a gerbil—something even the French wouldn't tolerate.

2. The Daihatsu Trek

daihatsu_trek.jpgIt's a car! It's a bed! It looks suspiciously like a child's toy! For the outdoorsman who has everything except a really expensive Big Wheel, there was the Daihatsu Trek. A single-passenger off-road vehicle, the Trek not only allowed drivers to travel to remote areas, it also gave them a place to bed down for the evening. With its collapsible seat, steering wheel, and roll bar, the boxy monstrosity from 1990 offered all the comforts of a really cheap motel room. And while we can't be sure why the car never made it past the concept stage at Daihatsu, we can only guess members of the off-road focus groups felt silly driving a Transformer.

3. The Avrocar

Much more after the jump.

avrocar01.jpg A quasi hot potato of international engineering, the Avrocar was initially funded by the Canadian government, designed by a British engineer, and eventually assumed by the U.S. Defense Department as part of the Cold War weapons race. The UFO-like contraption was 18 feet in diameter, but only 3 feet thick. It featured vertical takeoff and landing and was designed to reach speeds up to 300 mph while remaining elusive to radar. Unfortunately, the two-person craft was never able to stabilize at heights above 8 feet, nor travel faster than 35 mph. After eight years and more than $10 million, the project was abandoned in 1960.

4. The Dymaxion

dymaxion-car.jpgBuckminster Fuller was many things—inventor, philosopher, Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and bearer of a name that makes Frank Zappa's kids feel average. Among his many architectural and engineering creations, Bucky tried his hand at automobiles. In 1933, using a V-8 engine loaned to him by Henry Ford, Fuller built the Dymaxion car. Truly a wonder to behold, the Dymaxion was nearly 20 feet long, got 30-plus miles to the gallon, held up to 12 people, had a maximum speed of 120 mph, and could do a U-turn in 20 feet, thanks to a single rear wheel that controlled the steering. Unfortunately, the car's steering appears to be at fault for a fatal accident at the 1933 World's Fair, when the Dymaxion was rubbernecked by another car. Although later evidence placed fault on the driver of the other car, negative publicity surrounding the wreck caused investors to pull away from the project, and Fuller was freed up to build geodesic domes and work on his friendship with John Denver. The fortunate outcome of the Dymaxion's failure? Denver's hit tune, "What One Man Can Do," which was written for Fuller.

5. Da Vinci's Clockwork Car

Picture 1.pngLeonardo da Vinci is renowned for his forward-thinking sketches and intricate designs, which included blueprints for a bicycle, a submarine, and a helicopter. But you can't win 'em all. Da Vinci also designed a three-wheeled wagon-like device—often referred to as the clockwork car—that never really lived up to the hype. Its spring-operated design makes it the first-known concept for a self-propelled vehicle. And because it was designed without a driver's seat (though a secondary steering column was present) and was meant to be programmed along a specific course, the clockwork car is also thought to be one of the world's first robots. Some speculate that faulty interpretations of da Vinci's notes prevented the success of his ideas, but there's plenty of evidence to the contrary. When engineers finally constructed a working model of the car in the late 1990s, it only traveled 40 feet.

6. The KAZ

1kaz.jpgOriginally designed in 2001 to push the limits of electric automotive technology, the KAZ (Keio Advanced Zero-emission) vehicle is part science-fiction, part sports car, part limousine, and entirely unattractive. But the beauty of the KAZ lies in its eight wheels, each powered by its own battery, which allow the luxury concept car to reach speeds in excess of 190 mph without emitting any pollution. The car's design also makes for a safe ride because what would normally be the engine compartment is a crushable zone, reducing risk to the driver. Sadly, the KAZ came off as less luxury automobile and more cartoon, sending the designers back to their drawing boards.

7. The Bell Rocket Belt

Picture 2.pngEveryone who grew up watching "The Jetsons" and playing with the Steve Austin action figure dreamed of a day when people travelled to and from work via jet pack. The tease: a rocket belt developed under military contract by Bell Aerosystems in 1959. The hydrogen peroxide-powered Small Rocket Lift Device (SRLD), also known as the Bell Rocket Belt, was flown successfully throughout the 1960s. Unfortunately, the contract was later dropped, due largely to its limited flight duration (it held only 21.5 seconds worth of fuel). Although the belts are still used occasionally for entertainment (the opening of the 1984 Olympics and, most memorably, in the film "Thunderball"), our adolescent dreams of rocket-powered backpack flight will be confined to the silver screen and the funny pages for a while longer.

8. The Amfibidiver

Amfibidiver-front.jpgIf you've been looking to practice your spy skills, this is your toy. The Amfibidiver is a car that's also a boat that's also a submarine. All you have to do is find a way to fit your tuxedo underneath your scuba suit. Of designing the 007-mobile, Belgian inventor René Baldewijns says it was easy. "Just take one dream, the fuel tank of an airplane, two bicycles, the motors from five electric wheelchairs, the hull of a sailing boat, seven drink containers (a real justification for that empty bottle collection), several kilos of resin, a few garden seats, and several miles of electrical cables." Voilà! You've got an Amfibidiver! Baldewijns built a prototype for the machine, but his health problems caused the project to be shelved before it found commercial realization.

9. The Superbus


In 1988, Czech-born architect Jan Kaplicky attempted a feat that flew in the face of all odds: bringing change to Britain. The Superbus was a sleek, aluminum-bodied craft that charged itself at bus terminals and had the ability to lower its frame at stops to make it easier for passengers to enter and exit. The design was rejected in favor of the traditional red, double-decker Routemaster buses long associated with London's public transportation system. Was the Superbus truly hideous, or was it just one step closer to the 20th century and a decent dental plan? We may never know.

This list was pulled from an issue of mental_floss magazine. Make our editors happy and subscribe here today!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]