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Everywhere a Sign: A Brief History of International Symbols

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Restroom sign via Shutterstock

You see them every day when you go to the restroom, cross the street, or look at a map. International symbols are intended to make getting around easier for anyone, regardless of their native tongue. But where do these symbols come from? Let’s take a look.

Isotype

Unlike many museums, the Social and Economic Museum of Vienna, Austria, didn’t keep historic relics or display cases full of stuffed and mounted animals. The museum, under the direction of Otto Neurath, was intended as a means to educate the people of Vienna about their city, country, and the world at-large by using quantifiable data. However, in order to make these complex sets of numbers understood by everyone, Neurath, along with artists Marie Reidemeister and Gerd Arntz, created a visual “helping language” known as The Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics that worked to reinforce the accompanying text and statistics.

The Vienna Method worked by replacing numbers with “pictograms,” images that were representative of the things being measured. For example, to show the number of automobiles sold worldwide in 1920 and in 1926, a Vienna Method chart might use a simple drawing of a car to represent a stated 5 million automobiles. So in 1920, two illustrated cars would represent the 10 million automobiles sold. In 1926, five cars side-by-side would symbolize the 25 million cars sold. The point wasn’t to have people memorize statistics, but to simply recognize the pattern that there were more cars in 1926 than in 1920. In fact, the motto of the museum was, “To remember simplified pictures is better than to forget accurate figures.”

The Vienna Method became so popular that government organizations and other museums from across the world commissioned the museum to create charts and graphs. This assistance became so common that the museum set up foreign offices in places like Berlin, The Hague, London, and New York, which became beneficial as Fascism took hold of Austria in 1934. The three founding members were persecuted for their left-leaning politics, and managed to escape to their office in The Hague. They soon renamed the language as the International System Of TYpographic Picture Education, or “Isotype,” and continued to develop its use, creating a visual dictionary of over 4,000 Isotype graphics for posters, charts, signs, instruction manuals, and warning labels on products.

Olympic Pictograms

Pictograms have been a part of the Olympics since the 1964 Tokyo Games, when designer Masasa Katzumie created 59 symbols that could be understood regardless of the viewer’s native language. The symbols not only depicted the Games’ sporting events, but also helped direct visitors to where they needed to go. With sparse, simple lines, the symbols were heavily influenced by the Isotype language, but also ingeniously used white space to convey sports uniforms, providing just enough visual information for the brain to “complete” the picture.

The tradition of pictograms continued for the 1968 Games in Mexico City, but they saw an important evolution when German graphic designer and founder of the Ulm School of Design, Otl Aicher, created nearly 180 pictograms for the 1972 Games in Munich. Aicher’s symbols were drawn using a standardized grid, and were made up of lines that strictly followed 90 and 45 degree angles. This meant both the sports pictograms and the tourist information symbols had the same style and proportions, creating a unified visual style for the Games that no previous Olympic pictograms had possessed. Since Munich, most pictogram sets for the Olympics have used some derivative of Aicher’s grid to maintain consistency across the line.

Transportation Symbols

At about the same time that Aicher’s Olympic pictograms were unveiled, Henry Dreyfuss, the man responsible for some of the most iconic industrial designs of the 20th century including the “Princess” telephone, the folding Polaroid Camera, and the circular wall thermostat, was putting together his Symbol Sourcebook. Dreyfuss was an advocate of using symbols in place of words on industrial machinery to make the controls more universally understood, and his Sourcebook became a bible of symbols for designers to make their products safer by eliminating language barriers.

This interest in symbols led Dreyfuss to convince the U.S. Department of Transportation to work with the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) to develop a set of universal pictograms that could be used on signs in transportation hubs to assist travelers, regardless of their native languages. Fifty symbols were adopted in 1974, including many of the icons we’re familiar with today in airports and other public spaces, like the symbols for men’s and women’s bathrooms, arrows pointing the direction we need to go, a martini glass leading us to the bar, and plenty of others that you’d instantly recognize.

An important key to the adoption of these symbols was the fact that they were available for free. Now anyone could use the symbols for free to make signs, rather than hiring a graphic designer to develop new symbols that might not be as clearly understood.

The Modern Symbol

Today, most international symbols are maintained by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Every year, new symbols are submitted to ISO by one of its own committees or ISO member organizations, such as the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Not only must a proposer submit a justification for the symbol, but they must also use downloadable templates for people, hands, arrows, and more, to design the symbol. Once a new design has been turned in, it’s up to one of ISO’s Technical Committees to determine if a symbol is truly international by using a battery of tests and garnering external opinions from representatives of different countries around the world. Once a symbol passes the ISO test, it becomes available to a worldwide population of industries and product makers and, symbol-wise anyway, can be said to be ISO-compliant.

However, there is some controversy when it comes to ISO because, unlike the AIGA symbols that came before, ISO symbols are not free. In order for an organization or manufacturer to use these symbols, they must pay a licensing fee, which can add hundreds to development costs. Of course this extra expense means that some companies will simply forgo these international symbols and develop their own pictograms, which may lead back to the confusion they're supposed to eliminate.

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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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Amazon
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This Week's Best Amazon Deals You Can Still Get
May 28, 2017
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Amazon

As a recurring feature, we share some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. These items were the ones that were the most popular with our readers this week, and they’re still available.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers (including Amazon) and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting! 

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EasyAcc 6000mAh MFi Slim Compact Power Bank, Built-in MFi Cable for Apple Lightning Devices, iPhones, iPads, iPods, and USB Port for Universal USB devices for $18.39 (list price $49.99)

WizGear Universal Air Vent Magnetic Car Mount Holder with Fast Swift-Snap Technology for Smartphones and Mini Tablets, Black for $6.99 (list price $18.99)

HQDmall Fidget Cube Anxiety Stress Relief And Relieves Stress Attention Focus for Children and Adults Anxiety Attention Toy, Black for $7.99 (list price $29.99)

SENSO Bluetooth Headphones, Best Wireless Sports Earphones w/ Mic IPX7 Waterproof HD Stereo Sweatproof Earbuds for Gym Running Workout 8 Hour Battery Noise Cancelling Headsets for $36.97 (list price $169.99)

Fitbit Flex 2, Black (US Version) for $59.95 (list price $99.95)

Anker PowerCore Fusion 5000 2-in-1 Portable Charger and Wall Charger, AC Plug with 5000mAh Capacity, PowerIQ Technology, For iPhone, iPad, Android, Samsung Galaxy and More for $21.99 (list price $50.99)

Anker 60W 6-Port USB Wall Charger, PowerPort 6 for iPhone 7 / 6s / Plus, iPad Pro / Air 2 / mini, Galaxy S7 / S6 / Edge / Plus, Note 5 / 4, LG, Nexus, HTC and More for $25.99 (list price $79.99)

AELEC S350 Bluetooth Headphones Wireless In-Ear Sports Earbuds Sweatproof Earphones Noise Cancelling Headsets with Mic for Running Jogging for $21.99 (list price $129.99)

SoundPEATS Bluetooth Headset V4.1 Wireless Earbud Mini In-ear Bluetooth Earpiece Car Headset Hand-free calling with Mic for iPhone/Android/Windows 10 Cellphones, Tablets and Computers (Black) for $15.29 (list price $39.99)

TaoTronics Bluetooth Receiver / Car Kit, Portable Wireless Audio Adapter 3.5 mm Stereo Output (Bluetooth 4.0, A2DP, Built-in Microphone) for Home Audio Music Streaming Sound System for $13.49 (list price $15.99)

Seagate Backup Plus 4TB Portable External Hard Drive USB 3.0, Silver (STDR4000900) for $109.99 (list price $129.99)

Funko POP TV: Golden Girls Dorothy Action Figure for $9.00 (list price $12.00)

LEGO STAR WARS TIE Striker 75154 for $45.88 (list price $69.99)

Ace Armor Shield (6 PACK) Screen Protector for the Fitbit Alta HR with free lifetime Replacement warranty for $7.85 (list price $11.99)

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Anker Bluetooth Folio Keyboard Case for iPad Air 2 - Smart Case with Auto Sleep / Wake, Comfortable Keys and 6-Month Battery Life Between Charges (Not compatible with iPad 9.7 inch/iPad Air) for $35.99 (list price $69.99)

Anker 2.4G Wireless Vertical Ergonomic Optical Mouse, 800 / 1200 /1600DPI, 5 Buttons - Black for $19.99 (list price $49.99)

FRiEQ Universal Waterproof Case for Outdoor Activities - Waterproof bag for Apple iPhone 7, 7 Plus, 6S, 6S Plus, 6, 6 Plus, 5S; Galaxy S6, S4; HTC One X, Galaxy Note 3, Note 2; LG G2 - IPX8 Certified to 100 Feet (Black) for $6.99 (list price $19.99)

Fritesla 20000mah Power Bank 4USB Portable Charger for Smartphones (Green) for $24.99 (list price $100.00)

KITCHEN

Moscow Mule Hammered Copper 18 Ounce Drinking Mug, Set of 4 for $21.48 (list price $40.00)

OXO Good Grips Nylon Potato Masher for Non-Stick Cookware for $6.99 (list price $9.59)

Imarku Pro Kitchen 8 inch Chef's Knife High Carbon Stainless Steel Sharp Knives Ergonomic Equipment for $29.99 (list price $99.99)

Lodge L9OG3 Cast Iron Round Griddle, Pre-Seasoned, 10.5-inch for $16.19 (list price $24.00)

Cuisinart CSBP-100 3-in-1 Stuffed Burger Press for $11.47 (list price $14.99)

Wilton Nonstick 6-Cavity Donut Pan for $8.15 (list price $9.99)

Cuisinart Set of 3 Fine Mesh Stainless Steel Strainers, CTG-00-3MS for $11.21 (list price $22.00)

BLACK+DECKER GD2011B Family Sized Electric Griddle, 20 x 11-Inch, Black for $16.57 (list price $39.99)

Circulon Sunrise Whistling Teakettles, 1.5-Quart, Black for $19.99 (list price $40.00)

Rachael Ray Cucina Hard Porcelain Enamel Nonstick Covered Round Casserole, 4.5-Quart, Agave Blue for $27.69 (list price $100.00)

VonShef 7- Egg Electric Cooker Stainless Steel with Poacher & Steamer Attachment for $19.94 (list price $34.99)

The Original GORILLA GRIP (TM) Set of 3 Non-Slip Reversible Cutting Boards, BPA Free, FDA Approved Materials (Set of 3 Boards: Green) for $19.99 (list price $39.99)

Presto 04820 PopLite Hot Air Popper for $17.55 (list price $29.99)

Contigo AUTOSEAL Transit Stainless Steel Travel Mug, 16 oz, Polar White with Grayed Jade Lid Accent for $15.55 (list price $24.99)

AUTOSPOUT Straw Ashland, 24oz, Monaco for $8.49 (list price $12.99)

HOME

URPOWER 2nd Version Essential Oil Diffuser, 100ml Aroma Essential Oil Cool Mist Humidifier with Adjustable Mist Mode,Waterless Auto Shut-off and 7 Color LED Lights Changing for Home Office Baby for $15.95 (list price $39.99)

Radha Beauty Aromatherapy Top 6 Essential Oils 100% Pure & Therapeutic grade - Basic Sampler Gift Set & Premium Kit - 6/10 Ml (Lavender, Tea Tree, Eucalyptus, Lemongrass, Orange, Peppermint) for $14.95 (list price $79.99)

Sherpa Throw Blanket Lt Grey 50x60 Reversible Fuzzy Microfiber All Season Blanket for Bed or Couch by Bedsure for $23.99 (list price $59.99)

Hoover Vacuum Cleaner WindTunnel 3 High Performance Pet Bagless Corded Upright Vacuum UH72630PC for $139.51 (list price $189.99)

LANGRIA Shredded Memory Foam Pillow Firm for Optimal Orthopedic Support, Removable Washable Bamboo Cover Hypoallergenic Anti-Bacterial CertiPUR-US Certification,Queen Size for $12.99 (list price $59.99)

Downy Unstopables In-Wash Scent Booster Beads - FRESH, 26.5 oz. for $10.97 (list price $15.99)

Aszaro Cedar Balls, Cedar Cubes & Cedar Sachets 40 pc Combo Pack | 20 Natural Cedar Wood Balls, 20 Blocks & 5 Bonus Sachets | Ward Off Moths, Mildew And Mustiness For Easy Garment Care for $17.97 (list price $25.99)

Garment Steamer, Holan Portable Handheld Clothes Steamer, Fast Heat-up and 200ml Capacity Fabric Steamer with Two Brushes Perfect for Home and Travel for $17.99 (list price $39.90)

Monkey Hook Picture Hanger Home and Office Pack, 30 pc set for $11.25 (list price $19.75)

Queen Size SafeRest Premium Hypoallergenic Waterproof Mattress Protector - Vinyl Free for $29.95 (list price $95.98)

LUCID Premium Hypoallergenic 100% Waterproof Mattress Protector - 15 Year Warranty - Vinyl Free - Queen for $19.99 (list price $40.00)

HANSLIN Desk Top Swivel Alarm Clock for $23.75 (list price $29.99)

WBM Himalayan Glow 1002 Hand Carved Natural Salt Lamp with Genuine Neem Wood Base/Bulb and Dimmer Control, Crystal, Amber, 8 - 9-Inch, 8 - 11 lb for $30.98 (list price $39.95)

 

HEALTH AND BEAUTY

BS-MALL Makeup Brushes Premium Makeup Brush Set Synthetic Kabuki Cosmetics Foundation Blending Blush Eyeliner Face Powder Brush Makeup Brush Kit (10pcs, Golden Black) for $9.99 (list price $39.99)

Nerdwax Stop Slipping Glasses as Seen on Shark Tank for $10.99 (list price $14.99)

Crest 3D White Luxe Whitestrip Teeth Whitening Kit, Glamorous White, 14 Treatments - Packaging May Vary for $34.69 (list price $44.99)

Gillette Fusion Manual Men’s Razor Blade Refills, 12 Count, Mens Razors / Blades for $33.97 (list price $47.99)

Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen, Broad Spectrum Spf 45, 3 Fl. Oz., Pack Of 2 for $11.24 (list price $14.99)

Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Body Mist Sunscreen, Broad Spectrum Spf 30, 5 Oz. for $7.47 (list price $10.99)

Thinksport Kid's Safe Sunscreen SPF 50+, 3oz for $10.87 (list price $11.99)

Colgate MaxFresh Wisp Disposable Travel Toothbrush, Peppermint - 24 Count for $3.41 (list price $7.99)

100% Pure Australian Tea Tree Essential Oil with 45% Terpinen-4-ol, 1 fl. oz. A Known Solution to Help in Fighting Acne, Toenail Fungus, Dandruff, Yeast Infections, Cold Sores.. for $10.95 (list price $65.00)

American Crew Forming Cream, 3 Ounce for $7.95 (list price $9.67)

Aquasentials Mesh Pouf Bath Sponge (8 Pack) for $8.49 (list price $12.99)

Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash Redness Soothing Facial Cleanser With Salicylic Acid, 6 Fl. Oz. for $6.50 (list price $10.69)

Edge Shave Gel for Men Sensitive Skin - 7 Ounce (Pack of 6) for $17.82 (list price $26.99)

NIVEA Men Platinum Protect 3-in-1 Body Wash 16.9 Fluid Ounce for $3.11 (list price $4.99)

Gillette Fusion ProGlide Manual Men's Razor Blade Refills, 4 Count, Mens Razors / Blades for $13.22 (list price $18.03)

Radha Beauty Rosehip Oil 4 oz - 100% Pure Cold Pressed Certified Organic for $13.95 (list price $49.99)

OFFICE, SCHOOL, AND CRAFTS

SwissGear 1900 Scansmart TSA Laptop Backpack - Black for $54.99 (list price $130.00)

Cardinal by TOPS Products OneStep Printable Table of Contents and Index Dividers, 52-Tab, Numbered, Multi-Color (60990) for $7.15 (list price $11.51)

Chartpak Self-Adhesive Vinyl Capital Letters, 6 Inches High, Black, 38 per Pack (01184) for $16.65 (list price $21.99)

Fineliner Color Pen Set,0.38mm Colored Fine Line Point,Assorted Colors,10-Count for $6.58 (list price $9.99)

uni-ball 207 Impact Gel Pens, Bold Point (1.0mm), Blue, 12 Count for $20.00 (list price $26.46)

Elmer's Liquid School Glue, Washable, 1 Gallon, 1 Count for $14.08 (list price $20.49)

Westcott Jumbo Circles Template (T-826) for $4.31 (list price $7.00)

Amzdeal Magnifier Eye Glasseses Eye Loupe For Reading Drawing Making handicrafts Repairing for $11.89 (list price $39.99)

OUTDOORS, GARDEN, AND SPORTS

Coleman 12 oz. Enamel Mug for $3.49 (list price $8.98)

Igloo 5 Gallon Seat Top Beverage Jug with spigot for $22.99 (list price $39.99)

Mountainsmith Pinnacle Single Trekking Poles, Evergreen for $12.91 (list price $19.95)

Polar Bottle Insulated Water Bottle (24-Ounce) (White) for $7.99 (list price $11.99)

ALPS Mountaineering Crescent Lake 0-Degree Sleeping Bag (Regular) for $43.19 (list price $53.99)

Tapirus Extendable Marshmallow Roasting 4 Camping Sticks | Durable Stainless Steel Equipment BBQ Skewers With Insulated Handles | Telescopic Campfire Forks Utensils For Smores, Hot Dogs & Shish Kebabs for $14.95 (list price $25.99)

OUTERDO Monocular Dual Focus Telescope Camping Wildlife Hunting Surveillance Sporting Events Traveling Scope Waterproof Optics Zoom Bright and Clear with 10 Magnification 16x52 for $12.99 (list price $18.89)

TaylorMade 2016 Tour Preferred Golf Balls (1 Dozen) for $27.99 (list price $39.00)

VicTsing 50ft Expanding Hose, Strongest Expandable Garden Hose with Double Latex Core, Solid Brass Connector and Extra Strength Fabric for Car Garden Hose Nozzle for $34.99 (list price $39.99)

Insulated Picnic Basket - Lunch Tote Cooler Backpack w/ Flatware Two Place Setting (Black & Red) for $25.99 (list price $31.04)

Ekogrips BBQ Oven Gloves | Best Versatile Heat Resistant Grill Gloves | Lifetime Replacement | Insulated Silicone Oven Mitts For Grilling | Waterproof | Full Finger, Hand, Wrist Protection | 3 Sizes for $18.27 (list price $57.99)

Lightning Nuggets Inc 0-47815-14175-7 12-Count Firestarters for $5.54 (list price $12.99)

Imarku BBQ Grill & Baking Mats, Durable , Heat Resistant, Set of 10 Non-Stick Grilling Accessories for $23.99 (list price $49.99)

TOOLS

TIWIN LED Light Bulbs 100 watt equivalent (11W),Soft White (2700K), General Purpose A19 LED Bulbs,E26 Base ,UL Listed, Pack of 6 for $19.99 (list price $23.99)

Kidde FA110 Multi Purpose Fire Extinguisher 1A10BC, 1 Pack for $19.98 (list price $42.99)

Sugru Moldable Glue - Black & White (Pack of 8) for $14.80 (list price $21.25)

5 Pack Ipow LED Battery-powered Wireless Night Light Stick Tap Touch Lamp Stick-on Push Light for Closets, Cabinets, Counters, or Utility Rooms,Cordless Touch Light,Batteris Not Included for $9.97 (list price $11.99)

Dimmable LED Desk Lamp, 4 Lighting Modes(Studying, Reading, Relaxing, Sleeping), 5 Level Dimming, 1 Hour Auto Timer, Touch Sensitive Control, Modern, - Piano Black for $29.97 (list price $109.00)

KEDSUM 200pcs Adhesive Cable Clips, Wire Clips, Car Cable Organizer, Cable Wire Management, Drop Cable Clamp Wire Cord Tie Holder for Car, Office and Home for $8.99 (list price $19.99)

GlowBowl A-00452-01 Motion Activated Toilet Nightlight for $10.40 (list price $24.99)

Mothers 07240 California Gold Clay Bar System for $14.24 (list price $15.37)

J5 Tactical V1-Pro Flashlight The Original 300 Lumen Ultra Bright, LED 3 Mode Flashlight for $12.95 (list price $29.95)

Oria Precision Screwdriver Set, 60 in 1 Magnetic Driver Kit with 54 Bits, Professional Electronics Repair Tool Kit for iPhone/ Cell Phone/ iPad/ Tablet/ PC/ MacBook and Other Electronics for $13.99 (list price $26.99)

SE MH1047L Illuminated Multi-Power LED Head Magnifier for $8.94 (list price $15.44)

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