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Popular Science

22 Popular Science Covers That Outlined the Future

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Popular Science

Since 1872, Popular Science has been on the cutting edge. From the fanciful to the dead-on, here are some of their most enjoyable covers.

1. September 1917

Even PopSci was skeptical of this decked out star bicycle, writing, “The air propelled unicycle is much too complicated to operate successfully.”

2. November 1917

To fight enemy subs, the government considered building these floating fortresses. Not for the easily queasy, four soldiers could live inside the giant buoys, which had living quarters 20 feet below. (It was even supposed to come with a telephone!)

3. March 1921

Built in 1888, this nine-mile monorail linked the villages of Listowel and Ballybunion in County Kerry, Ireland. But three years after appearing on PopSci’s cover, the train’s track-straddling days were over. The rail was scrapped. In 2003, a 1000-yard stretch of track was restored, which you can now ride.

4. April 1923

Inventor E. J. Christie believed his 14-foot-high gyroscopic unicycle would shatter the world’s speed records. It was supposed to go 115 mph.

5. October 1930

George Bennie built a prototype of his overhead railplane in Milngavie, Scotland. Although PopSci predicted it could whiz along at 150mph, the idea was left hanging. Bennie went bankrupt in 1937, and his creation was destroyed two decades after.

6. April 1932

With motors mounted at the center of each tire, a working model of a steam-wheeled vehicle actually took off in a Chicago lab.

7. March 1933

With fins supplying lift, Victor Strode’s winged speedboat was predicted to skim atop the waves at 70 mph. He even landed a patent for the design.   

8. April 1933

Volcanologist Arpad Kirner wore this asbestos and steel suit when he descended 800 feet into Mt. Stromboli’s inferno. He lived to write about the tale in this issue.  

9. November 1933

Clearly, PopSci's editors had a thing for unicycles. But this one-wheeler was not for clowning around—it was a battle weapon. The motorized unicycle could be converted into a one-wheeled tank, reaching speeds of 100 mph. As for economy? It was supposed to get 280mpg.

10. July 1936

Dubbed a “tumbleweed tank,” this bowling ball of doom was designed to deflect bullets. A fixed, hollow sphere protected troops inside while a rotating outer shell rolled them toward the enemy.

11. August 1936

“Churning the air with wing-shaped paddles mounted on giant, wire-spoked wheels, an odd plane recently devised resembles a pair of flying Ferris wheels,” PopSci wrote.  

12. August 1938

Decades before protective suits made high altitude skydives possible, J. J. Dunkel wanted to visit the stratosphere. According to this issue, the daredevil planned to ride inside a bomb-shaped gondola, which would float via balloon to 110,000 feet. The balloon would release, leaving the capsule—and Dunkel inside—freefalling. At 30,000 feet, a parachute would slow the gondola’s descent and, at 5000 feet, a trap door would open, allowing Dunkel to parachute down on his own.  The plan never got off the ground.

13. June 1939

Now this is water polo. “In a thrilling new aquatic sport, players are mounted on dummy horses that skim over the water under the power of outboard motors,” wrote PopSci.

14. March 1940

Picture this battle scene: “Solders hurling themselves across wide streams at a single leap, charging over battlefields at high speeds, flying across wide trenches and gaping shell holes in a series of broad jumps…” That’s what inventor George de Bothezat envisioned. His one-man helicopter was supposed to be handy for sportsmen, too.  

15. January 1956

One year before the U.S. launched its first satellites into orbit, PopSci took a stab at what they’d look like. Although the Americans eventually favored a different design, the rendering does resemble Russia’s Sputnik.

16. July 1959

Powered by propeller, William Bertelson’s aeromobile rode atop a smooth bubble of air. Although it was one of the first successful hovercrafts, it had a few bugs. 

17. May 1966

Buckminster Fuller was the poster boy for geodesic domes. His designs inspired Spaceship Earth at Epcot and the Montreal Biosphere. Less popular, though, were his plastic pool domes, which kept your personal swimming hole warm almost year round.

18. July 1966

“If development work now under way is successful, as appears likely, it will soon be possible for you to own a revolutionary low-cost glass-bubble submarine that can drive to the ocean floor. It will cost about the same as a small cabin cruiser.”

19. November 1971

In the 1970s, the government was serious about podcars. The U.S. Department of Transportation liked the idea so much that Secretary John Volpe announced a $6 million plan to install four systems. Although some are scattered about the world, the idea didn’t catch on. A nine-mile stretch still winds through WVU Morgantown, transporting about 15,000 people a day.

20. July 1973

Motorola’s DynaTAC phone—the original brick—weighed 2 pounds and sold for $3995. Inventor Martin Cooper made the first handheld call with it while walking around New York City. “I made numerous calls, including one where I crossed the street while talking to a New York radio reporter—probably one of the more dangerous things I have ever done in my life,” Cooper said.

21. January 1981

Those extra blades on a wind turbine? Wasted space! That’s what Dr. Rudolph Meggle believed, who sketched this colossal windmill—a 394-foot, one-armed behemoth with a 35-ton counterweight. It was never built. Meggle opted for a shorter, two-armed turbine instead.

22. April 1992

When airplanes are about to touchdown, the “ground effect” phenomenon causes drag to dip and lift to increase.  That’s what helped the flarecraft zip over the water at 60mph. In 2001, Lockheed Martin bought two of the craft.

You can browse more old issues of Popular Science through their enormous, free archive.

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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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