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Early Adopter Beware: 7 Huge First Gen Products

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As tempting as it may be to be the first person in your social circle to purchase and use a new product, there’s reason to abstain from ownership until the kinks of a first generation model have been worked out. Consider how the inventors of the following technologies might feel if thrust into the modern day and shown how their bulky ideas were eventually improved into sleeker, fitter versions capable of fitting into your backpack, pocket, or chest cavity without much fuss.

1. Pacemaker

Canadian Design Resource

The first artificial pacemaker was powered by an AC wall socket, and carried the risk of fatally shocking its recipient given the wrong surge. The heft of those early models wasn't quickly reduced, which meant that 70-year-old priest Gerardo Florez—the first man to be fitted for the nascent technology—had to lug around the nearly 100-pound contraption on a hospital cart that was used for transporting oxygen. Even more inconveniently, it could only be recharged using a car battery. It worked, though: Florez stayed alive for 18 years, during which the pacemaker was refined into a less cumbersome device capable of being implanted directly into the patient. But when you need a new heart, you need a new heart.

2. Smartphone

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It wasn’t the first handheld cellular device to be called a “smartphone,” but there’s no denying that’s what the IBM Simon was: a phone and PDA wrapped into one, capable of sending emails and managing the undoubtedly hectic schedules of anyone corporate enough to snag one when they hit the market in 1994. Twice as big as an iPhone and exponentially less hip, the Simon cost $1,099 for users who didn’t want to sign up for a contract, too. What’s worse, you couldn’t even play Angry Birds on its rudimentary touch screen.

3. Microwave

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Today, you’re lucky if you can get all your household appliances to fit neatly on the kitchen counter. Families in 1947 had to rearrange their entire kitchens to accommodate the Radarange, the first commercially available microwave oven, made by Raytheon. Costing about $5000, the Radarange was nearly six feet tall, weighed over 750 pounds, and required a plumbing installation for its water-cooled magnetron tube. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t sell very well, and microwave technology only caught on as subsequent models became lighter, cheaper, and more counter-ready. The spread of instant ramen may have helped, too.

4. Laptop

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Technically speaking, 1975’s IBM 5100 was the world’s first portable computer and therefore the modern laptop’s eldest ancestor. But you couldn’t use it to take notes during English lectures, or even carry it around without developing a hernia: Weighing in at 55 pounds, the cheapest model retailed for $9000 and was used mainly by computer geeks looking to mess around with BASIC and APL programming languages, which most computers of the time didn’t offer in the same package. John Titor, the early millennium message board user who purported to be a time traveler, claimed he needed to acquire a 5100 so that diabolical computer programs of the future could be debugged.

5. Electronic calculator

Vintage Calculators

Mathematics isn’t the most naturally fun-filled activity, which is why the makers of the ANITA Mark VII, the world’s first all-electronic desktop calculator, gave it a peppy acronym to inspire students: A New Inspiration To Arithmetic. Sold in continental Europe in 1961, the Mark VII used old-school cold-cathode “Nixie” tubes to display its digits and required manual adjustment of the decimal point for more specific calculations. Its bulky frame and 30-pound weight meant statisticians weren’t lugging it around, either; a far cry from future, compact calculators capable of crunching equations, running The Legend of Zelda, and fitting neatly into one’s pocket.

6. Computer mouse

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Artisanal merchants looking for the next modern amenity to turn retro might draw inspiration from Douglas Engelbart’s creation of the first computer mouse in 1963, which was carved from wood and used wheels instead of the later standardized ball to track its movements. Engelbart’s model was block-shaped, used a single red button to do its clicking and placed its “tail” at the back of the mouse rather than the top. But because his patent ran out right as the mouse was gaining accepted use with all computers, Engelbart’s invention never made him any money.

7. Xbox controller

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Conventional wisdom says a new product only has one opportunity to make a proper impression on consumers. Thankfully, Microsoft got a second chance after the original Xbox controller, packaged with the console upon its release in 2001, was widely mocked for its cumbersome build and unintuitive button layout. (Some users claimed they couldn’t even fit it in their hands.) Named the “Blunder of the Year” by Game Informer, it quickly was replaced in retail packages by the comparatively smaller Controller S, thus preventing a generation’s worth of calluses.

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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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