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The Electric Shock: Electric Cars Pre-Date the Civil War!

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Talk about an old idea. The first electric cars hit the scene way back in the early 1830s, 30 years before the Civil War (for the record, they're also older than the Eiffel Tower, Joan Rivers and sliced bread). In fact, the electric car was actually the first popularized car. In the year 1900, of the 4,192 cars produced in the United States, 28% of them were electric. And in 1903 electric cars outsold gasoline powered cars, representing about 1/3 of the cars found on the road in New York City, Boston, and Chicago.

So what made electric cars so popular? Basically, the reasons for its success are the same reasons people are taking a second look at electric cars today: they were quieter, smoother and easier to drive (gasoline-powered cars required gear changing, whereas electric cars did not). And on top of that, they didn't emit noxious smells or gases.

The Flattery for Batteries

The first electric carriage was created by Robert Anderson of Scotland in the 1830s. It was powered by non rechargeable primary cells -- basically, a battery. Prior to that, cars were powered by steam engines. France improved the storage battery and thereafter the electric car flourished in France and Great Britain in the late 1800s, and in the US in the early 1900s.

Since the transistor based technology limited the cars' speed to about 20 mph, in the US the electric car was marketed strictly to high-class individuals as a town car. It was also marketed as suitable for women due to its ease and safety of operation, whereas the gasoline powered car was dangerous and difficult to start. Though slow and powered by a non-rechargeable battery, the electric car's technology was promising. In 1900, the first speed record was set at 66 mph by a vehicle powered by two 12 volt motors, and the first distance record was set by an electric vehicle that drove 180 miles on a single battery charge.

How the Electric Became Endangered

So what exactly happened to cars? The decline of the electric can be attributed to two individuals "“ Henry Ford and Anthony Lucas. Henry Ford came into the picture in 1903 and with his quote "I will build a car for the great multitude," he did just that. In 1908 he perfected the mass production of internal combustion engines. The Model T could be assembled in only ninety-three minutes! Of course, that meant gasoline powered cars became more affordable for consumers. In 1912, an electric car sold for $1750 while a gas guzzler sold for $650. Additionally, Cadillac simplified the once dangerous and difficult task of starting up the internal combustion engine. As cities grew, the need for longer-distance driving grew and batteries just didn't cut it. Electric car sales peaked in 1912, and declined to obsoleteness shortly thereafter.

Of course, assembly lines and combustion engines weren't the only reason that the electric went extinct; oil also played a huge factor. When Anthony Lucas struck black gold at Spindletop in 1901, US oil production tripled overnight, making gasoline extremely abundant and affordable. This only boosted the case for gas powered internal combustion engines.

It's been 100 years since Ford perfected the production of the internal combustion engine, and gasoline powered cars still dominate the automobile market. However, unlike Spindletop in 1901, it seems the only thing skyrocketing today is the price of oil. These days, even Ford Motor Co is playing with electric cars- an ironic coda considering just how hard the company worked to outpace the technology all those years ago.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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