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11 Awesome NERF Facts—Plus, a Contest!

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Whether you were playing with your friends or gleefully terrorizing your siblings, few things brought as much joy growing up as NERF’s wide array of toys. Below, 11 fun facts about NERF. Plus, a contest to win a bunch of awesome NERF products—see details below!

1. The name NERF actually comes from a strange source—drag racing. In the late ‘60s, foam-covered bars, sometimes called “nerf bars,” were put on the front of the trucks that pushed racers to the starting line. This prevented damage to the cars.

2. The first NERF product—a 4-inch polyurethane foam ball—was developed by Twister inventor Reyn Guyer in 1969. It was introduced in 1970 by Parker Brothers as the world’s first indoor ball, and by year’s end, millions had been sold.

3. Hey hey, they’re the Monkees—and they appeared in a commercial for NERF balls in 1970.

4. A key part of NERF's early advertising was the line "Throw it indoors; you can't damage lamps or break windows. You can't hurt babies or old people."

5. The NERF football was invented by Minnesota Vikings kicker Fred Cox. It hit shelves in 1972. NERFoop, a basketball game, came out that same year, followed by living room baseball in 1983.


6. The product you know as the Super Soaker was originally called the Power Drencher. It was invented by aerospace engineer Lonnie Johnson and the first model hit the market in 1989. (Super Soakers would become a NERF product in 2010.)


7. In 1992—its biggest year—NERF released its very first dart blaster, the NERF Sharpshooter, and the NERF slingshot, which was accompanied by a delightfully weird commercial starring Seth Green.

Green wasn’t the only future star to hone his skills in a NERF commercial. Devon Sawa also appeared in a 1993 commercial for the brand:

8. On-set prankster George Clooney is a fan of using NERF products to terrorize his co-stars. According to Anna Kendrick, who starred alongside Clooney in Up in the Air, "He would be playing with Nerf balls on set, so I was trying to dodge Nerf balls while getting prepared for a scene." Ryan Gosling, who was directed by and starred with Clooney in the film Ides of March, had a similar experience: “There was a certain point we had a Nerf gun behind the camera and if he didn’t like a take, he’d shoot.”

9. NERF has appeared on a number of TV shows, including The Office, 30 Rock, Modern Family, and Chuck.

10. In the past 5 years, NERF has sold enough darts to circle the globe four times.

11. NERF designers have a number of areas where they can test prototypes, including a large warehouse where they simulate inside environments like basements, bedrooms, cubicles, and dorm rooms. Sounds like a dream job!


In the comments, tell us your favorite summertime NERF memory. We'll pick our favorite story, and the winner gets a NERF prize pack with five NERF products: NERF N-STRIKE ELITE ROUGH CUT Blaster, NERF SUPER SOAKER ARCTIC SHOCK Water Blaster, NERF FIREVISION SPORTS FLYER Set, NERF N-SPORTS PRO GRIP Football, and NERF VORTEX DIATRON Blaster. You have until midnight PST this Friday, June 14, to enter. Good luck!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]