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6 Products That Were Ahead of Their Time

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Not even early adopters were ready for the initial versions of these products.

1. The Hybrid Car

In 1900, a young Ferdinand Porsche used both a battery-powered wheel hub drive and a petrol gas engine to create a hybrid 100 years before you started feeling guilty for not buying a Prius. The Lohner-Porsche Hybrid could reach speeds of 22 mph, and go 124 miles on a single charge/tank. Not bad for 1.7 tons of turn-of-the-century innovation.

2. Picture phones

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If there is one thing all retro future predictions had in common, it was picture phones—and in the mid-'60s, it seemed like they might actually become a reality. Western Electric spent years researching and testing the Western Electric Picturephone®. They brought it to the World’s Fair in 1964 to see what people thought of the prototype. They hated it. Undaunted, Western Electric continued to develop the Picturephone and put it on the market in 1970. Everyone still hated it; it was big and ugly and offered little advantage over telephones.

3. The VCR

There was a flurry of confusing and unsuccessful attempts at a home video recorder in the early 1960s, and among them was the 1963 Telcan (television in a can!). The Telcan was connected to your television in a manner I can’t possibly understand, and could record 20 minutes of grainy television (40 if you switched the reels at the end). It cost a reasonable-ish £60 (around $3000 in today’s money), but came in a kit you had to assemble yourself. It was put on the market in 1963 to a completely dumbfounded public, appealing only to wealthy tech nerds. By 1964 the company that made Telcan was liquidated, and only two Telcans are believed to exist today.

4. Edison Talking Doll

This creepy little darling, made in 1877, wasn’t just the first talking doll. She also contained the first phonograph intended for home use. The child would wind the handle of the phonograph inside the doll’s body, causing the needle to cross over a wax record of a nursery rhyme. It cost the equivalent of two weeks' salary, and was entirely too fragile for children. The steel needle wore out the wax quickly, and of the 500 dolls sold, most were returned for a refund. In fact, they were only marketed for a month before production ceased. As for Edison’s own opinion: “The voices of the little monsters were exceedingly unpleasant to hear."

5. Washing Machine

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Some historians say that the invention of the washing machine was the greatest thing in history to further women’s rights. They aren’t being funny; laundry was an all-consuming torture before the washing machine. Women had to scrub every sheet, napkin, diaper, and dirt-caked pair of work pants in the house, on a washboard, in endless cauldrons of boiled water, with lye soap that burned their hands raw, before moving on to the hoisting, hanging, drying, and ironing. The first washing machine to use a drum and agitator (like we use today) was invented by William Blackstone in 1874 as a gift for his wife. Other inventors had tried variants, but Blackstone’s hand cranked design would be the model for all to come after. Long after. It would take about 50 years for the machines to become properly electronic (in a way that didn’t cause constant outages and shocks from the water) and thus a household staple.

 6. Microwave oven

The first microwave ovens, produced in the mid-1940s, were intended for restaurant use—which was the only viable option because they were six feet tall, weighed 750 pounds, and cost $5000. But they allowed restaurants to keep food in the refrigerator until it was ordered, increasing freshness and decreasing waste. The Radarange, intended for home use, came out in 1947. It was still the size of refrigerator, but more reasonably priced at $3000. Microwave ovens remained unpopular for nearly 30 years, as people associated them with radiation and horrible cooking. By 1975, microwaves had had a few years to shrink both in size and cost, and to prove they didn’t cause brain tumors. That was the year they outsold traditional ovens. 

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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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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]