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Shopping Carts That Aren't Shopping Carts

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When is a shopping cart not a shopping cart? When it's a car, a work of art, a mobile farm, or a piece of furniture. Here are some ways that creative folks have thought outside the cart corral when it comes to the typical grocery basket on wheels.

A Grocery-Getter That Can Really Get Groceries

Of course the original intention was for shopping carts to carry food, but some folks have adapted them to carry more precious cargo – people. Charles Guan, an MIT student, took an old cart and gave it new life in the form of his LOLrioKart, named in homage to the classic series of Nintendo games, Mario Kart. Watching the videos as he zips around MIT's campus, powered using rechargeable batteries and an electric motor capable of 12 HP, the only thing missing are turtle shells, banana peels, and Yoshi.

But that's kid stuff compared to Britain's Andy Tyler and his rocket-powered shopping cart. In 2004, Tyler pulled an old "trolley" from a river, spent £50 on some scrap wheels, brakes, and a steering wheel, then strapped it to a homemade jet engine that he cobbled together from instructions he got off the internet. The cart can reach up to 50mph before it gets too unstable to control, but that's ok, because it runs out of gas in about two minutes anyway. Tyler has said, "People think I'm off my trolley, but it's exhilarating." No argument on the first part, Andy, but we'll just take your word on the second part if that's ok.

Tyler's cart is impressive, but it's not really practical, especially if you actually needed to carry food. For that chore, nothing beats Rodney Rucker and his 16-foot tall, V8-powered cart.

While not the only giant motorized shopping cart in the world, his is the only one that seats 6 comfortably in the basket, with another person behind the wheel in the kid's seat. This cart can cruise along at 60mph, so getting to the store and running errands is no problem at all. Just don't expect it to fit through the Starbucks drive-through on your way home.

If the motorized ones are a little too fast for your style, there's always the "cartrider," a shopping cart with its own built-in pedals and handlebars, by Korean artist Jaebeom Jeong.

Kickstart My Cart

While there's no Shopping Cart 500 just yet, if it has wheels, there's bound to be someone who will race it. And shopping carts are no exception.

The biggest shopping cart race is the Idiotarod, an urban endurance race inspired by the Iditarod dog sled race in Alaska. Except here, the sleds are shopping carts and the dogs are (usually inebriated) humans. The race was started in San Francisco in the mid-90s, but has since spread to cities all across the country, including Chicago, New York, Denver, Portland, L.A., and even our nation's capital. The race is less a race and more of a bar crawl, as the "dawgs" make their way from checkpoint bar to checkpoint bar by whatever route they choose, dressed in outlandish costumes, tied to their equally absurdly dressed carts. Part of the fun of the race is trying to sabotage each other's chances along the way with roadblocks, misinformation, and even dirty pool, like sticking your foot out as the competition runs by. While not the original intention, many Idiotarods now have an element of charity to go along with the fun. For example, at the 2010 Chiditarod in Chicago, each of 120 teams had to have at least 40 pounds of canned goods in their cart as they crossed the finish line. In all, the event brought in 14,525 pounds of food for local charities. But there are also plenty of fun prizes to be had by racers, who can win in categories ranging from 1st Place, Best Sabotage, Best Team Concept, and Dead F**king Last.

For Idiotarod racers, their shopping cart grand prix is a fun, one-day event. But for some, racing carts has become a way of life. The documentary film Carts of Darkness by Murray Siple tells the story of homeless men who turn their shopping carts full of recyclables into screaming hunks of metal and plastic, reaching speeds of 40mph as they go careening down the steep mountain roads of North Vancouver. With no brakes, no steering wheel, and nothing to lose, these daredevils find a thrill that many of us who live a "normal" life would never have the guts to even try. You can check out the whole film online thanks to the National Film Board of Canada, but the following YouTube clip will give you a sample of the excitement.

Old MacDonald Had a Cart

Thanks to the recent emphasis on locally grown produce and organic farming, many urbanites are looking for ways to grow their own food. But rooftop gardens aren't always allowed, and you can only get so much food out of a windowsill flower box. So the folks at Set and Drift, a design collective based out of San Diego, are trying to make urban farming more realistic with their Farm Proper project. The group takes abandoned or retired shopping carts and turns them into mobile, temporary organic gardens. The idea is to set a small group of carts in an empty lot and grow food there as long as possible for members of the surrounding community. If the lot is ever developed, you simply push the carts over to the next empty lot and keep growing.

A Truly Mobile Home

When the zombies start rising from the grave, here's hoping you're friends with Kevin Cyr. His Camper Kart combines everything you'll need to survive in one rolling package. Tucked inside a simple shopping cart is a pop-up camper big enough for one person, a mattress, a small table, a hatchet, a lantern, and storage space for other necessities that will come in handy while living on the outskirts of a city overrun by the living dead. The next morning, you can simply collapse everything back into the wire frame cart and continue the search for another rag tag group of survivors. With the Camper Kart, maybe the zombie apocalypse won't be so bad after all.

Cart Art

The iconic design of the shopping cart inspires many artists of many different styles. Perhaps one of the most famous is Frank Scheiner who, in 1983, built "Consumer's Rest," a chair made out of the body of a shopping cart. Artist Ramon Coronado has followed in Scheiner's footsteps with his project "Mercado Negro" (Black Market), a heavy duty, red plastic cart that has been cut up, bent around, and molded into an entire furniture set – a chair, a side table, a lamp, and even a swing. And while we don't condone stealing shopping carts, if you happen to wind up with a cart in your possession, you could always make your own version of Scheiner's classic design thanks to Tim Anderson's very informative Instructables post.

For a 2006 project, artist Ptolemy Elrington got his shopping carts out of the rivers surrounding Norwich, England, and turned them into sculptures of some of the region's water-dwelling creatures. It was all part of an effort by RiverCare, a British environmental organization, to raise awareness of their efforts to clean up local waterways. The sculptures won numerous awards and generated enough interest within the region to found over a dozen new groups to help keep their rivers clean.

Know of any other modified shopping cart projects out there? Ever raced in an Idiotarod? Have a favorite cart from the list? Tell us all about it in the comments below!

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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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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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