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8 Seemingly Harmless Toys That Were Yanked Off the Shelf

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Some toys were doomed from the start, as any one of the thousands of people impaled by lawn darts will attest. But others seem completely incapable of causing injury or duress…until they do.

1. Aqua Dots

Oh, Aqua Dots. They looked so harmless and fun! Build something, spray a little water on it, and voila! You’ve made a multidimensional… thing. But the manufacturer’s decision to do a covert ingredient swap (presumably to keep costs low) ended in one of the most bizarre toy recalls in history. The beads (called Bindeez in Australia), perfectly safe for typical use, did something a little crazy when ingested.

In 2007, the CPSC began investigating reports of kids getting dizzy, vomiting, and falling unconscious after eating Aqua Dots. It was determined that a component of the coating metabolized into GHB—also known as gamma-hydroxy butyrate, or the date-rape drug. The worldwide recall involved over 4 million units of Aqua Dots kits in Australia, the US, Canada and Europe. While regulatory bodies quickly tried to pull the product off the shelf, people looking for a cheap high and big profits were buying them up to sell on the street. A reformulated and rebranded version, called Pixos (or Beados down under), is coated with a bitter-tasting ingredient to keep kids (and dates) from eating them.

2. Plush Toy Uterus

Aside from being a little strange, this squishy pink uterus plush looks pretty innocuous. But when manufacturer I Heart Guts performed a pull test and found the toy didn’t pass, they released a voluntary recall announcement that stated, “the ovaries may detach when pulled, becoming a potential small part choking hazard for young children.” If you’d like your kiddo to experience the joy of owning an anthropomorphic womb toy, don’t despair: there’s a new version available now, and the Huge Uterus Plush promises to be “bigger, fluffier, pinker and now child-safe!”

3. Toy Penguin Figures

This unassuming little guy looks like a perfectly safe and delightful plaything; it’s too big to pose a choking hazard, there are no sharp edges, and, c’mon, it’s a penguin. A round one. It jingles!

But in the hands of at least one curious kid, who pulled the head off and exposed the nails holding the adorable little seabird together, Plan Toys’ penguin figure became a serious laceration hazard. The company recalled all 3000 units in 2008, instructing parents to “take the toy away from children immediately,” which almost sounds scarier than “laceration hazard.”

4. Dive Sticks

Dive sticks, manufactured by a number of companies under various names, are designed to stand up on the bottom of a pool (or in one case, hot tub) after being tossed in. The idea is to dive in and pick up as many as you can before resurfacing.

One might think the problem with a toy designed to sit on the bottom of a swimming pool solely for the purpose of retrieval by children would be the risk of drowning. Nope. Dive sticks were recalled in 1999 after 6 reports of impalement and at least one facial injury, most requiring surgery and hospitalization, all in kids aged 6 to 9. At least 12 million dive sticks were destroyed, replaced or repaired before the product was redesigned. (You can buy them anywhere now, presumably with a lesser risk of losing an eye.)

5. Holiday Toy Mouse

Not all toys that get recalled are safety hazards. The cute little toy mouse in the video above was pulled from shelves by Chinese toymaker Humatt after reports came flooding in that the mouse, sold primarily in the UK, sang “pedophile” instead of “jingle bells.” A spokesperson for the company said the problem was that the man who provided the toy’s voice couldn’t accurately pronounce certain words, and when the speed and pitch were increased it just sounded wrong. Humatt recalled the mice “just in case anybody might take offence.”

6. Flubber

Hasbro and Disney once teamed up to create a tie-in toy for the 1963 release of Son of Flubber. All the kids wanted their own dark green bouncy ball of goop, a totally harmless, lab-tested concoction made of synthetic rubber, mineral oil, and green dye. The “parent-approved” formula hit shelves just before Christmas in 1962, and a few weeks later, complaints of kids with head-to-toe rashes, fever and sore throat were flooding the customer service departments.

After lawsuits and an extensive FDA inquiry, the companies determined that Flubber caused folliculitis—a painful infection of the hair follicles. After the recall, Hasbro attempted to incinerate the Flubber but found it just released noxious black smoke but didn’t really burn. So they enlisted the help of the Coast Guard to sink the excess product, but it floated back to the surface. In a last ditch effort, Hasbro buried tons of Flubber and paved over it to make a parking lot for their new Providence, RI warehouse.

7. Cabbage Patch Snacktime Kids

There’s some disagreement over the cuteness of Cabbage Patch dolls, but after reports of the Snacktime Kids’ tendency to eat kids’ hair and fingers instead of the carrots and pretzels supplied by Mattel, there was little debate over whether or not to halt production. The biggest problem seemed to be that there was no power switch on the doll, and the motor could only be turned off by removing the doll’s backpack—information that was buried deep in the doll’s instructions and not readily available to parents of imperiled children. As soon as Mattel announced its voluntary recall in 1997, doll collectors scrambled to buy them. (You can still pick one up on eBay, if you’re not a fan of having fingers or hair.)

8. Burger King Pokéballs

Not many chain restaurant toys were more popular than the Burger King Pokéball in 1999. But two months after handing out a toy that seemed impossible to injure someone with, reports that the halves of the red and white ball were suffocating children halted the frenzy, and Burger King recalled millions of the toys. One infant died and a toddler was caught with half a Pokéball stuck over her mouth and nose, but BK stepped up and offered a free small fry for anyone who wished to return their toys. After the CSPC deemed the toys perfectly safe for children over 3, the toys were distributed only with BK Big Kids Meals.

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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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