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5 Dangerously Popular Holiday Toys

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It's not really the holiday season until you've waited in an interminable line in adverse weather conditions to spend money on a toy that has been hyped within an inch of its life. To get your festive fix of fisticuffs, we present to you the Top Five Most Dangerously Popular Holiday Toys of the last two decades.

1. The Toy: Cabbage Patch Kids

The Year: 1983
The Chaos: My very own parents can attest to the fact that these (admit it) sorta-ugly dolls were THE must have Christmas item for much of the early 80s, thanks, in part, to a few big celebrities who were apparent fans of the little dimpled tykes, including Burt Reynolds (His wife, Loni Anderson, was a toy collector. We assume he bought them for her. That has to be it, right?) I had two. My first adopted daughter's name was Jemima. I don't remember the name of the second, but I do recall that her new special feature was that you could "curl" her hair by winding it around your finger. Basically this meant that instead of normal yarn-like hair, she had strands that felt like oily, waxy Twizzlers and were probably made from something we'd rather not think about. As for the frenzy surrounding these dolls, we'll let the You Tube footage speak for itself:

2. The Toy: Tickle Me Elmo

elmo.jpgThe Year: 1996
The Chaos: Nearly 300 people had amassed outside a Wal-Mart in Frederickton, New Brunswick in the five hours before it opened. The moment the doors were unlocked, the Muppet-seeking mob pushed their way through the entrance, evidently not caring who they had to step over on their way to the shelves of creepy, giggling, red rascals. One defenseless employee had to be hospitalized. (This was eerily similar to the tragic death of a Long Island Wal-Mart employee last month.) Down in Texas, two Wal-Mart employees were lucky enough to escape the Elmo rush unharmed, but they weren't able to escape The Man: they got fired for hiding Elmo dolls from customers so they could claim them for themselves.

The new Elmo on the block, "Elmo Live," doesn't just giggle; he sits, stands, dances, sings, tells jokes and crosses one leg over the other. It's terrifying and just a little bit awesome. See for yourself:

3. The Toy: Furby

furby.jpgThe Year: 1998
The Chaos: Despite the fact that nobody was really sure what a "Furby" really was, the floppy-eared, big-eyed gremlin-esque toy with a capacity to remember a vocabulary of over 100 English words (along with some words spoken in "furbish") was so coveted in 1998 that people waited in line for hours just to buy Furbies that they could scalp to shoppers who were still waiting in line. The eternal law of supply and demand was put to the test as the media featured stories about this innovative "intuitive" tech-y toy months before it was actually scheduled to hit the shelves. By the time it did, the demand was already out of control stores were forced to turn away customers away with vague projections about when they'd get a few more Furbies in stock. Several customers at a Wal-Mart in Tewksbury, MA, wouldn't take "No Furbies" for an answer and threatened violence against the store management if their desire for Furby wasn't quenched. They still left empty handed, but at least they weren't in handcuffs. The Furbster is still around today, and there is actually a Bejeweled Furby that has been appraised at a worth of $100k. There are only five in existence, but somehow we suspect (or hope) the supply might be more than the demand this time around. Ready to lose several nights of sleep? Here's a You Tube video highlighting Furby's more"¦ uh"¦ demonic characteristics:

4. The Toy: Beanie Babies

beanie.jpgThe Year: 1997
The Chaos: The words "Beanie Baby Black Market" might conjure more than a few chuckles, but such markets were a reality in 1997 when Beanie mania was at the height of its frenzy. Oak Brook, IL-based toy maker Ty, Inc. introduced the original Beanie Babies in 1993. Four years later, they were still introducing new beanie designs that became instant must-haves for the kiddie set, while serious collectors paid thousands to get their hands on the "vintage classic" beanies with '93 and '94 birthdays. One Nebraskan toy storeowner reported that grown men were fighting in line waiting to get into her store to buy these $5 trinkets. Stores had to vastly limit the number of Beanies that customers could buy because while they only cost a fiver at the retailer, the underground trading market was being flooded with beanies costing ten times their intended value. In 1999, a St. Louis couple was sentenced to one and half years in prison and a $150,000 fine for smuggling in counterfeit Beanie Babies from Europe with the intent to sell them in the United States. Creator Ty Warner intended to get out of the beanie business altogether after he saw how his simple creation was getting blowing vastly out of proportion with asking amounts in the thousands, but he's back at it with Beanie Babies 2.0, an updated version of the same old stuffed animal with the added feature of being able to log on to the internet with a special code that allows you to play games and interact with your beanie virtually. (Much like the now hugely popular Webkinz, the first collectible plush to take up the original beanie baby mantle). For more beanie news, we will now direct you to this You Tube clip that actually features Beanie Babies delivering fake news. It's too precious to be believed.

5. The Toy: Nintendo Wii/Sony PS3

wii-ps3.jpgThe Year: 2006
The Chaos: It's unlikely that you've forgotten the intensity surrounding Sony and Nintendo's holiday console system debuts in 2006. The lines. The websites devoted to tracking the latest shipments to your local stores. The urge to rationalize paying three times the retail price just so you would know what it felt like to be one of the proud few who would hold one on Christmas morning. This writer still doesn't own either, as she somehow believes that it is beyond her reach, like if I was to go right now to the store and try to get a Wii, two years later, they would still tell me to get in line. Nevertheless, some people did manage to score these two state of the art systems in '06, but in one reported instance, getting one was actually the easy part. One CNN staffer posted a personal account of her brush with violence as she struggled to escape with her newly purchased Wii, stating that as she made her way for the exit, disgruntled line-waiters who just been told there were no more Wii's to be had started grabbing for her bag and shouting at her. A lone female in a sea of angry gamers, she was escorted to a police car by the store's security guard and was given safe exit by her armed escort. For a 19-year old in West Bend, WI, just getting in line for a PS3 was a struggle: he injured himself running into a pole as he sprinted to claim one of 10 coveted spots in line outside a Wal-Mart to lay claim to the small shipment of PS3's that was available. Believe it or not, that was just the tip of the extremely violent iceberg surrounding these super-hyped systems:

We don't know yet which toy will claim the top spot under the tree this year, but here's a gallery of the contenders. Our money is on Kota, the dinosaur who munches leaves and whom that small children can sit on and ride. What we wouldn't give to be six again.

What's your best (or worst) must-have toy memory?

Jenn Thompson is a freelance writer for publications including Charlotte Magazine, Variety, and Time Out.

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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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