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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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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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