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5 Toys With Dark Histories

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You know the toys, but do you know about their dark sides?

1. Kites

Just how could something as delicate and serene as a kite turn into a harbinger of death, doom and destruction? Easy—turn it into a sport. An annual kite festival in Pakistan has become a regular safety hazard due to its highly competitive nature. Some contestants use a banned string with tiny metal serrations to cut their competitors out of the sky, and that has ended up harming and even killing people. Nine were killed and dozens were injured in a 2004 festival when the metal strings touched power lines and even cut a young girl on the throat. The Pakistan Supreme Court banned kite flying the following year, but lifted it for 15 days in 2007 after the local government promised tougher safety measures. Another 10 people died in the 2007 festival and over 700 were arrested for using the sharpened twine.

2. The View-Master

view-masterThis magic virtual transporter took children to all sorts of exotic and breathtaking locales, from the Black Hills of South Dakota to Barbie's tenure as the island princess. The factory in Beaverton, Oregon, where the View-Master was made, also took their workers to some far off places—mainly the hospital. The state's Department of Human Services found in 1998 that a drinking well used by workers at the plant contained an industrial solvent called "tricholoroethylene" at concentrations of up to 1,670 parts per billion, a solvent that had been in the well for more than 20 years. A study conducted by the agency found "higher than expected percentages of deaths from pancreatic and kidney cancers" among the plant's former workers.

3. Stuffed animals

The toy manufacturing industry has the unfortunate honor of having the largest and most destructive industrial fire on record. The Kader Toy Company hired sweatshop labor in Thailand to manufacture their stuffed toys. On May 10, 1993, a fire engulfed and destroyed three of the factory's buildings and killed 188 people. An International Labour Organization investigation found the building had an alarm system, but it did not sound when the fire started. The buildings also did not have a sprinkler system, fireproofed steel or an emergency plan in place, even after a labour officer requested the company submit one after an earlier fire.

4. Bratz

Some once thought this popular line of tween dolls would dethrone the reign of Barbie. But Mattel quelled that rebellion when the company sued the doll's "creators," MGA Entertainment, and won a whopping $100 million for copyright infringement. A federal jury ruled that the doll's creator, Carter Bryant, created and designed the concept while he worked for Mattel. The toy giant originally asked for $1.8 billion, so Barbie could start her own space program. Speak of the devil who wears Prada...

5. Barbie

The toy icon is far from controversy as well. A number of controversial dolls were unleashed on the public, like the "Teen Talk Barbie" that exclaimed "Math class is tough." But the funniest of the crowd goes not to Barbie, but her cute dog Tanner, the first dog that shows children the joys of caring for a dog down to the creepiest detail. Tanner poops! It gets worse. The "pellets" Tanner leaves behind have to be fed back to him as food. The Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a recall of the toy because of some loose (ahem) magnets. I guess the CPSC can't recall something based on its lack of taste.

Danny Gallagher is a writer living in Texas. He can be found on the web at and on Twitter.

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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]