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How One Grieving Father Got Lawn Darts Banned

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Lawn darts, or Jarts, were all the rage in the 1980s. With a few Jarts, a few friends, and a few beers, American backyard-barbecue-goers would lay down small plastic hoops as targets and play a game not entirely unlike horseshoes. Each player would toss the darts into the air, attempting to arc them into the opposite ring. While the darts, which had a metal spike and plastic fins on the sides for flight stability, were not especially sharp, they were weighted. They picked up enough speed to come sailing down with a satisfying thunk and stick in the ground. Landing a bulls-eye in the hoop would net a player three points, and the closest non-bullseye landings would get a point.

David Snow, an aerospace engineer from Riverside, California, wasn’t even looking for lawn darts when he went shopping for party games in April 1987. He wanted a volleyball set, but all the department store had was volleyball in a combo pack with two other games. Whatever, he decided. He’d buy it, set up the volleyball net and leave the rest in the box in the garage.

His plan didn’t bear out. One Sunday afternoon soon after, his nine-year-old son and some of his neighborhood friends found the Jarts and began tossing them around in Snow’s backyard. One kid tossed his Jart too far and too high, sailing it over the backyard fence and into the front yard, where Snow’s daughter, seven-year-old Michelle, was playing with her dolls. The Jart came down right on her and, with what researchers estimate as 23,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, penetrated her skull. She collapsed, was rushed to the hospital, and was pronounced clinically dead three days later.

For weeks after, the Snows were overcome with grief. When David returned to work at Hughes Aircraft, he had a hard time adjusting. He sat in meetings listening to his co-workers talk about work things. Parts shortages. Budgets. Personnel issues. None of it seemed the least bit important anymore. His sadness gave way to anger, and he began a crusade. "I want to get these damned darts," he told The Los Angeles Times at the time. "These things killed my child. If I don't do anything, it's just a matter of time before someone else gets killed. I'm going to get them off the market. Whatever it takes."

Image credit: Flickr user The Damn Mushroom

He began to research Jarts and discovered that, for years, they had been banned from sale in the U.S. because of several injuries they’d caused to children. Jart manufacturers and distributors had challenged the ban in court, though, and won a compromise: a regulation stating that lawn darts could made and sold provided they were marketed only as a game for adults. A warning label had to be placed on each package alerting consumers to the danger they posed, and the darts couldn’t be merchandised in toy departments or sold in toy stores.

To Snow, Michelle’s death proved that the regulation didn’t protect kids. It didn't matter that they were sold as an adult game; if Jarts were in a home and children were allowed to play with them or could still get access to them, he thought, accidents would happen. He wanted the ban back in place and began lobbying public officials with phone calls and letters telling his story.

When Snow brought his complaints to the the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), they told him that their injury clearinghouse, which makes national estimates of injuries caused by products based on a sampling of hospital emergency room reports from around the country, only knew of some two dozen injuries from lawn darts. A complete ban couldn’t be justified by that. Snow asked them to check their stats again.

By the Numbers

The commission, which had already come under fire from parents and consumer groups for their lax regulation and high-profile injuries from ATVs and other products, went along with his suggestion. During their new investigation, they separated lawn dart injuries from all dart-related injuries for the first time, and found that most Jart injuries had been lost in their figures. Over a period of eight years, lawn darts had sent 6,100 people to the emergency room. 81% of those cases involved children 15 or younger, and half of those were 10 or younger. The majority of injuries were to the head, face, eyes or ears, and many had led to permanent injury or disability.

When the commission collected 21 different lawn dart sets from 14 manufacturers, they also found that most of them weren’t complying with the warning requirements. A survey of 53 retailers likewise found that many weren’t following the regulation, and in a third of the stores, lawn darts were displayed in toy departments or with toys and sporting equipment intended for kids. The commission met with lawn dart makers and distributors and struck a new agreement on improved labeling and retail practices. The commission published a new safety warning for lawn darts and scheduled a vote on an outright ban for later in the year.

The week of the vote, Snow went back to Washington, D.C. to lobby the commission and get press for his cause. He gave interviews to consumer reporters from TV stations and newspapers. He met with President Reagan's assistant for consumer affairs. Finally, he had meetings with each of the three consumer product safety commissioners. By the time they voted, Snow felt confident he had at least two of the three commissioners on his side.

He was right. As an 11-year-old girl in Tennessee lay in a coma from a lawn dart injury earlier that week, the commission voted 2-1 in favor of a ban. Lawn darts were removed from stores the week before Christmas in 1988 and banned from further sale. The ban did not, however, include a recall of darts that had already been purchased, and the commission sent out a press release pleading for the public to destroy their darts or keep them out of the hands of kids.

Canada followed with their own similar ban, and today, fully assembled individual lawn darts, sets, and kits are banned from sale in, or entry into, both countries. If you try to list Jarts on eBay, they’ll pull your auction, but it’s still possible to buy and sell them at flea markets and yard sales, out from under the eye of the CPSC. It’s also okay to buy and sell replacement parts to repair damaged lawn darts purchased before the ban.

Despite the CPSC’s warnings to purge them and the possibility of puncturing someone’s skull, some folks still pull their old Jart sets out summer after summer. I vaguely remember their presence at family parties when I was a kid, and settling for a Jart game at a college barbecue when we couldn’t find sand on short notice to build a horseshoe pit. There’s even an underground Jarts tournament based in the suburbs of Dayton, Ohio, chronicled in the book Sports from Hell: My Search for the World's Dumbest Competition.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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