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Building a Bear-Proof Suit

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On August 4, 1984, Troy Hurtubise was hiking in central British Columbia when he came face-to-face with a grizzly bear. The grizzly knocked the 20-year-old sportsman down, his .22 rifle careening out of reach. Struggling to his feet, he drew his knife.

The bear, Hurtubise claims, seemed to contemplate its chances before disappearing into the woods. A conservationist later told him that if any cubs had been present, he would’ve been mauled.

To the grizzly, it was a forgettable encounter with a bothersome human. To Hurtubise, it was a revelation. The Ontario native became obsessed with designing armor that could withstand a full-blown attack. Inspired by the chain mail worn by shark researchers, he began consulting with experts on how to test his ideas. The suit’s seven-year development was chronicled in the 1996 documentary Project Grizzly, a favorite of Quentin Tarantino’s.

But not all has gone well for Hurtubise. Now 50, the self-proclaimed eccentric doesn’t use schematics and often can’t explain why his inventions—fireproof paste, a bulletproof shield, a light he claims shrinks tumors—work. Over the years, he’s been forced to declare bankruptcy, sell his prototypes on eBay, and even pawn his wedding ring to make up for the debts run up by his obsessive ambitions.

Since Hurtubise lacks financial or university backing, most dismiss his notions as fanciful or downright senseless; others believe his ideas could save lives. “My wife has said, ‘If you’d just invent some simple refrigerator magnet and do an infomercial, we’d be rich,’ ” Hurtubise says. “But I don’t know how to do that. I just build what I see in my head and know it’s going to work.”

Armor Up

Years after his encounter with the bear, Hurtubise was watching RoboCop when he was struck by the idea of body armor. He thought there should be a protective suit that would allow researchers to test so-called bear-proof sprays and safely observe grizzly behavior. He spent the next seven years (and $150,000) constructing a series of suits he dubbed Ursus Mark. The 7'2" Mark VI—a blend of air cushioning, titanium, and duct tape—successfully endured makeshift trials in which it was hit by a pickup truck and beaten by bikers armed with baseball bats, as depicted in Project Grizzly. But the armor weighed as much as Hurtubise himself: 150 pounds.

“My only complaint was that the filmmakers didn’t show five minutes of science behind it all,” he says. “Being able to get hit by the truck took years of development.”

Ultimately, Hurtubise’s rematch with a grizzly never came to be. During filming, he was forced to abandon his efforts because the suit was too heavy and he was unable to remain upright on uneven ground. In 2002, a trainer allowed him inside a cage with a Kodiak, which was too confused by Hurtubise’s appearance to approach him.

“She was so terrified, she urinated,” Hurtubise recalls. “I didn’t look human enough.” Limited mobility and questionable usefulness combined to doom the Mark series. “We would never use a suit like that,” says Lana Ciarniello, PhD, a bear behavioral expert. “A solid knowledge of bear behavior is the best thing one can use to avoid being attacked, [which is] rare.”

Nonetheless, the armor brought Hurtubise fame. In addition to the documentary, he was recruited for Japanese game shows, and he inspired a 2003 episode of The Simpsons where Homer constructs a bear-proof suit. He even filmed an Audi commercial. Of course, Hurtubise quickly reinvested the proceeds in his pursuits.

After Hurtubise hung up his bear ambitions, he turned his attention toward other inventions. He had a brother in the military, which piqued his interested in flexible armor, and he believed a suit styled after the one in the videogame Halo would keep soldiers and law enforcement better protected. So Hurtubise invented a suit dubbed the Trojan and performed his trademark experiments, enlisting retired military marksman Keith Cunningham—who had “covered” Hurtubise during his bear expeditions with nonlethal rounds—to help with field tests.

Once, Cunningham recalls, Hurtubise wanted to be shot point-blank, believing his armor-plated chest could take the bullet. “But it’s illegal in our province to point a loaded weapon at someone,” Cunningham says. “So we took the plate out. I shot at it, and the bullet went right through. He turned ashen gray.”

Hurtubise tweaked the Trojan, which he debuted in 2007, to little notice. Eventually, he offered his design to the Canadian military for free, but it can take years for armed forces to evaluate new technology. And existing contracts with equipment vendors render it near impossible for independent inventors without backing or references to succeed. “With industrial military, contracts are sewn up, and they don’t want anyone stepping on toes,” he says. “Engineers pick my brain, but I can’t be affiliated with them. I’m a loose cannon, and my methodology is backward.” Even so, many of Hurtubise’s inventions have grabbed headlines. His fire paste, a gooey substance that hardens to resist flame, was documented by Canada’s Discovery Channel as standing up to temperatures in excess of 3,600° F. Hurtubise held a blowtorch to his helmeted head for 10 minutes to prove it. NASA, he says, was interested but never followed up.

During a demonstration for his blast blanket, a plate meant to absorb heavy firepower, a crowd watched as Cunningham shot round after round of 12-gauge shotgun shells into it. When it finally budged, it only fell over; the glass behind it was unharmed. “I told cops about it every chance I got,” Cunningham says. “Imagine having that on the doors of patrol vehicles for protection or under military transports. I told them, ‘Try to look past Troy’."

There was a reason for Cunningham’s caution: Hurtubise looks more like a mountain man than an esteemed inventor. Worse, his claims sometimes stretch the boundaries of reason. Hurtubise garnered skeptical looks when he announced that his God Light device had shrunk his sister-in-law’s cysts as well as tumors in mice. He even believes it can cure Parkinson’s. “Light is extremely effective against certain cancers,” he says. “All I did was take all spectrums of light, electromagnetic radiation, and put them together. And it works. I don’t know why, but it does.”

Hurtubise’s claims have never been validated by an outside auditor, in large part because subjecting a group of sick people to a makeshift electromagnetic beam stretches ethical considerations. When Hurtubise turned the light on himself, he experienced what he calls the Hyde effect. His hair began falling out, and he lost 20 pounds. Then the God Light stopped working. Hurtubise has yet to find the money to resurrect it.

Invent and Invent Again

Today, Hurtubise operates a scrapyard in Ontario and dismisses notions of patents (“the stuff is too easy to duplicate, and it costs $80,000 to file an application”). He rejects offers to outright sell his creations—like fire paste—because he frequently sells off shares to fund their development. “By the time I got fire paste to the point of testing, 70 percent of it was owned by investors,” he says. “So when a university wants it, I have only 30 percent left. They’re not interested in that.” And yet, Hurtubise can’t stop inventing. He still feels compelled to put in 21-hour days refining his projects. His current plan is to find funding for the Apache, the latest version of his Trojan suit, which he says protects 93 percent of a user’s body and offers 96 percent flexibility. A prototype will cost $70,000. “It’ll take six to eight months to build by hand. I’ll try to market it to law enforcement like SWAT.” He needs another $100,000 to rebuild the God Light, renamed the EMR-5, which he now claims will only cure breast cancer. He wants to take it to Johns Hopkins for testing.

As for Hurtubise’s legacy, it’s hard to predict. There’s a chance he’ll join the long list of inventors who were once disparaged until time proved them correct. Even the airborne Wright brothers were thought to have faked their maiden flights. If that’s Hurtubise’s fate, he seems comfortable with it. “I’ve been called a maverick, a nutcase, everything,” he says. “It never bothered me. Without imagination, science is nothing.”

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]