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Early Adopter Beware: 7 Huge First Gen Products

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Wikimedia Commons

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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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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