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19 Famous Things Invented in Canada

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The good people of Canada are responsible for many inventions you use every day. Especially if you're someone who plays Trivial Pursuit in a Wonderbra while eating peanut butter smeared on McIntosh apples.

1. Peanut Butter

Montreal pharmacist Marcellus Gilmore Edson envisioned his nutty ointment-like product, patented in 1884, as a food option for people who couldn't chew. Or for, you know, everyone.

2. The Wonderbra

Leave it to our great neighbors to the north to invent one of the most popular push-up bras ever. Montreal's Canadian Lady Corset Company first licensed the trademark "Wonder-bra" in 1939, and then renamed the company Wonderbra in 1961.

3. Trivial Pursuit

Here's one for the orange category: What board game was invented in 1979 by Scott Abbott, a Montreal sports editor, and Chris Haney, a photo editor, when they couldn't find all their Scrabble tiles? [And yes, that's Rudy Giuliani and the Pets.com sock puppet in the photo.]

4. The Odometer

Road trips were never the same after 1854, when Nova Scotia inventor Samuel McKeen created a device that measured distance with every revolution of a carriage wheel. Though to be fair, everyone from Vitruvius to Ben Franklin was also working on this one.

5. The Rotary Snowplow

A Toronto dentist named Dr. J.W. Elliot first conceived the idea of a snowplow to clean up train tracks. The snowmobile and snowblower were also born in Canada. But the Zamboni ice resurfacer? California, man.

6. The Egg Carton

Newspaper editor Joseph Coyle of Smithers, British Columbia, found an egg-cellent new use for paper in 1911.

7. IMAX

Filmmakers Graeme Ferguson, Roman Kroiter, and Robert Kerr and engineer Robert C. Shaw founded IMAX in 1967. Kroiter produced the first IMAX film in 1970. Star Wars creator George Lucas later credited him with originating the idea of "The Force."

8. McIntosh Apples

McIntosh apples didn't just grow on trees back in the day. In 1811, farmer John McIntosh began grafting a wild apple tree at his South Dundas farm. People began enjoying the fruits of his labor in 1835.

9. The Walkie-Talkie

Don Hings invented what he called the "packset" in 1937. When Canada declared war on Germany two years later, he went to Ottawa to redevelop the device for military use. Over and out.

10. Insulin

Toronto scientists Frederick Banting, Charles Best (pictured), and James Collip didn't actually invent insulin in 1922 — it's a hormone naturally produced by the pancreas. Instead, they discovered it and learned how it could treat diabetes.

11. Instant Replay

CBC Television producer George Retzlaff used a kinescope when he created the first-ever Instant Replay in 1955. Not surprisingly, it was during a broadcast of Hockey Night in Canada.

12. The Foghorn

Robert Foulis invented a steam-powered foghorn in 1854, but died penniless because he didn't patent it. Argh!

13. Green Currency Ink

Got a dollar? In 1862, Thomas Sterry Hunt invented the ink that makes U.S. bills green.

14. The Baggage Tag

John Michael Lyons of New Brunswick changed travel when he invented the first baggage tag in 1882. The revolutionary document contained information about the bag's point of departure, destination, and owner.

15. The Paint Roller

The paint roller has a messy history. Canadian Norman Breakey invented it in 1940, but an American inventor named Richards C. Adams tweaked the design and filed the first patent.

16. Standard Time

Engineer Sandford Fleming brought standard time to U.S. and Canadian railways in 1883. Time zones became U.S. law in 1918 and were accepted worldwide by 1929. It was about time.

17. The Wheelchair-Accessible Bus

Walter Harris Callow, a blind, quadriplegic veteran, invented the first wheelchair-accessible bus in 1947. He took his first and only ride after death, when his body was transported for his funeral.

18. The Electric Wheelchair

In 1952, engineer George Klein made the world more accessible with a motorized wheelchair

19. Garbage Bags

With stretchy, waterproof polyethylene at their disposal, Harry Wasylyk of Manitoba and Larry Hansen of Ontario invented the first plastic garbage bag for commercial use in 1950. Union Carbide Company bought the idea and brought Glad trash bags into homes.
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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