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10 Strange and Wonderful Umbrellas

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Umbrellas are utilitarian objects that most of us have -unless we don't. A wise woman (or man, maybe) once said you need three umbrellas: one to forget at home, one to leave on the train, one to leave at the restaurant. If you are the kind of person who can keep up with an umbrella, you should treat yourself to a distinctive and memorable accessory.

1. Nubrella

The Nubrella is a hands-free umbrella design that covers your entire head and shoulders. Attached shoulder straps rest on your shoulders and hold it in place. I can't decide whether it looks more like a B-movie space helmet or an insect eating your head. The upside is that it won't blow away in the wind, won't poke other people, and you can use both hands to carry stuff or use your phone. Not that you need two hands to use your phone, but you know what I mean.

2. Cloud Umbrella


Dutch designer Joonsoo Kim created the Cloud Umbrella, which is a mere stick until you need it. Then you'll have to blow it up! Yes, it's an inflatable umbrella.

3. Samurai Umbrella


The Samurai Umbrella comes with its own nylon scabbard and shoulder strap, so you can carry it just like a samurai would carry a sword. When the rain comes, grab it by it's authentic-looking samurai sword hilt and open it with a dramatic gesture!

4. Big Umbrella


The Big Umbrella is an art project by Aleksandra Mir. The umbrella is big enough to cover 16 people at once, if they are willing. Mir took the brolly on a tour of Paris, London, Dresden, Copenhagen, New York and Martinique to see how people would react to it. The receptions were varied.

5. Manta Ray Parasol


Manta rays kind of look like umbrellas, don't they? If they didn't before, they do now! The Manta Ray Parasol was designed with the sea creature in mind. This is a furniture parasol for sun shade, much too big to carry around in the rain.

6. UFO Cap Umbrella


It's a rain cap! No, It's an umbrella! No, it's both! The advantages of the UFO Cap Umbrella design is that it doesn't have a handle, so you can fold it up and keep it in your purse or backpack. Since your head holds it up, both of your hands are free. The downside is the multitude of people who will point and laugh at you.

7. LED Umbrella


This umbrella is straight out of the movie Blade Runner. And who couldn't use a little extra light when it's gloomy and wet? The shaft is lit by LEDs powered by 3 AAA batteries. Can double as a light saber, or even a flashlight.

8. Squirt Gun


Even more fun than pretending your umbrella is a samurai sword or a light saber, this umbrella is a real working weapon! When deployed, rainwater is funneled down the shaft and into a squirt gun. For your own safety, you might want to limit your targets to people who are already wet.

9. Pileus


Possibly because of the many things as you can do with an umbrella shaft, we haven't looked at the possibilities of the canopy. In this case, it makes a dandy projection screen! Pileus is the name given to the internet umbrella, a concept umbrella with which you can take and share photographs.

The current prototype has two main functions: photo-sharing and 3D map navigation. The photo-sharing function is connected to Flickr, then a user can share their finding (e.g. new shops, beautiful scenes) in a city with his/her friends taking a picture by the camera. The screen also shows beautiful photo-streams retrieved from shared-pictures in a Flickr community. The photo-function is operated by a simple action on the umbrella with a motion sensor without any complicated operations.

10. Pet Umbrella


You must walk the dog, even when the rain is falling. Protect your pooch with the Snoozer Pet Umbrella It has a bendable shaft that hooks to your dog's collar, and a leash attached to the top of the canopy. The product goes by Pet Umbrella, but we all know you're not going to get a cat to walk in the rain, much less use an umbrella.

See also: The mental_floss Lunchtime Quiz on Umbrellas.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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