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Google Patents/Erin McCarthy

11 Absurdly Awesome Inventions

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Google Patents/Erin McCarthy

They say necessity is the mother of invention, but some of these are making us think twice.  

1. “Animal-trap”

Mousetraps can be so anticlimactic, but this one goes off with a bang. An 1882 patent, the frame is designed to hold your favorite peashooter. When a rodent steps onto the treadle, a spring yanks on the trigger and sets off the firearm. The inventor, James Williams, suggested it would make a good burglar alarm.

2. “Flatulence Deodorizer”

Confidently cut the cheese with this 2001 invention, which masks the smell of your personal potpourri. A simple charcoal pad clings to the back of your underpants, stopping the aroma before it reaches your boss’ nose. Benjamin Franklin would be proud. 

3. “Apparatus for preventing collisions of railway trains”

It’s like a scarecrow—but for trains. Patented in 1888, J. W. James’ invention features an electric dummy riding in front of the train. The dummy is “made to throw up both hands at each revolution of the wheel and strike the gong with a hammer for the purpose of frightening cattle from the track and to announce the approach of the train,” James wrote.

4. “Fresh-air breathing device and method”

Smoke inhalation causes most fire-related deaths. Knowing that, William Holmes found out how to keep you conscious while you wait for rescue—as long as you can handle having toilet breath. Holmes patented a snorkel-like device that supplies fresh air from your sewer. Just feed the tube past your throne’s water trap. Although you won’t die from a lungful of smoke, but you might get woozy after huffing all that sewer gas.

5. “Wearable device for feeding and observing birds”

As long as you’re okay with hanging a few birdfeeders from your dome, you can get a front row seat to all the action. David Leslie patented the contraption in 1999. Apparently, it’s also handy for butterfly hunting.    

6. “Graffiti prevention apparatus”

Henry Hunt called graffiti “an assault on the visual pleasures of man.” So in 1997, he patented a system that could kill the career of any wannabe Banksy. When a vandal approaches a potential canvas, a sensor embedded in the wall activates a magnetic field to repel the paint. The problem? Spray paint isn’t magnetic.

7. “Motorcycle Safety Apparel”

Dismayed by how dangerous motorcycle crashes can be, Dan Kincheloe patented an inflatable safety suit in 1987. Basically an airbag for your body, the suit has an “umbilical cord” that connects to a supply of compressed gas. When a biker flies off, a shorter pull cord snaps that rapidly inflates the suit. Pro? It could save your life. Con? You’ll look like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

8. “Process for the utilization of ruminant animal methane emissions”

Forget windmills and solar panels. Harness the beautiful power of cows! Ruminant animals—which have four stomachs—account for 20 percent of the world’s methane emissions. (Most of that methane doesn’t come from their behinds, actually. They exhale and burp it out.) To harness all that lost gas, Markus Herrema patented a bovine gas collector in 2006. The gas is channeled to a chamber full of methane-loving microorganisims, which can be used later in “nutritional foodstuff or . . . other useful products, such as adhesive or cosmetics.”

9. “Improvement in Vehicles”

If cow power isn’t your thing, go to the dogs. In 1875, Parisian inventor Narcisse Hueet patented the “cynophere,” a dog-powered velocipede. Hueet wrote, “My invention contemplates the employment of dogs or other animals, working within a cage or cages, forming part of the wheels of the vehicle to be propelled,” Strangely, the French Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals gave his invention a thumbs up.

10. “Apparatus for Facilitating the Birth of a Child by Centrifugal Force”

If the thought of childbirth makes you dizzy, look away. This will make it worse. In 1965, George and Charlotte Blonsky patented a turntable that gives pregnant women an, um, extra push. The mother-to-be is strapped onto the turntable, which spins fast enough that G-forces help ease the baby out. A “pocket-shaped reception net” catches the newborn and triggers the machine to stop. (But in case that doesn’t work, there’s a handbrake!)

11. “Double Bicycle for looping the loop”

“Yo, dawg. I heard you like bicycles, so I put a bicycle on a bicycle so you can stay upright while you go upside down.” Patented in 1905 by Kael Lange.

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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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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