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11 Smells That Are Slowly Disappearing

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istock

Nothing can trigger a memory so unexpectedly as an aroma. Clove oil immediately transports you to the dentist’s office. Crayola crayons take you back to elementary school. But some fragrances are being phased out of existence thanks to technology and safety regulations. How many of these do you miss?

1. Spirit Duplicators

In 1960s and '70s-era classrooms, it was an olfactory treat whenever the teacher passed out fresh-off-the-machine purple print “ditto” sheets to the class. Virtually every student immediately held the page to his face and inhaled deeply. There was something so pleasing about the aroma that emanated from the printing fluid—a 50/50 mix of methanol and isopropanol. The sole company that still manufactures ditto fluid in the U.S. only sells a few thousand gallons per year these days, as opposed to the over 100,000 gallons they delivered during the 1970s.

2. Burning Leaves

A common indicator that autumn was winding down and winter would soon be here was the crisp air filled with the smell of burning leaves. The breeze had a bite to it by the time October rolled around and the ground was sometimes coated with a fine layer of frost, but the smoke from the pile of leaves everyone on the block seemed to burn somehow smelled warm and comforting.

Pollution concerns caused municipalities in the U.S. to enact open burning bans beginning in the 1980s, and today residents are encouraged to either rake and bag their leaves or use them for mulch. Of course, compost piles do have their own aroma, but it’s not particularly enticing.

3. Diesel Exhaust

City buses and semi-trucks don’t smell quite like they used to when they accelerate on a cold morning. There are a lot of folks that actually enjoyed the old school smell of the black exhaust these vehicles used to belch. But reductions in the sulfur content of diesel fuel along with selective catalytic reduction gives today’s diesel burners more of a cat urine-y type of aroma.

4. Freshly-Opened Polaroid Film

Polaroid ceased production of their instant film in 2008. The foil packs used to produce a sweetish chemical-y odor when they were first torn open. It was, in fact, the official “smell” of photography for a lot of kids whose first camera was a Polaroid Swinger.

5. Magic Markers

The classic glass bottle-bodied Magic Marker was first marketed in 1952, and until the early 1990s, the ink formula included a mixture of Toluene and Xylene, two solvents which not only had a distinctive and not unpleasant odor, but which also contained intoxicating properties when inhaled. Today’s permanent markers get their color from less fragrant alcohol-based inks.

> > > 11 Sounds Today's Kids Have Probably Never Heard

6. Bubble Gum Cards

Topps stopped including a stick of stiff, hard-to-chew bubble gum in their trading cards several years ago when more collectors than kids were buying the product and complaining about the gum sticking to and ruining the bottom card in the pack. So kids today are getting mint-condition cards for their money, but they’re missing out on that distinctive bubble gum smell that wafted from the package when it was opened (and from the cards when they were brand new).

7. Cap Guns

Even if you didn’t have a toy gun handy, it was easy enough to “shoot off” caps by striking them with a hammer or even a rock. The gunpowder/sulfur smell of an exploded cap is another aroma that immediately propels many minds to summer days spent playing cops and robbers.

> > > 11 "Modern Antiques" Today's Kids Have Probably Never Seen

8. (Old) New Car Smell

That aroma we smell today upon delivery of a brand new set of wheels is very different from the new car smell of 30 or so years ago. A lot of that smell comes from off-gassing synthetic materials, plastics and chemical additives that are used in modern vehicles. In 1960, the average American-made car contained 22 pounds of plastics; in 2012, that quantity had increased to 250 pounds. And there’s also matter of the flame retardants and antimicrobials that are now added to the carpeting and upholstery for additional “safety” (even though some of the fumes have been proven toxic).

9. Vacuum Tube Electronics

Old TVs and radios that were filled with tubes instead of transistors emitted a “warm” or hot engine smell as they heated up. If you weren’t particularly fastidious with the feather duster, a fine layer of dust would accumulate on the equipment inside and add a slight burning aroma to the mix. The old movie and film projectors used in schools had a similar smell once the light bulb inside had been burning for a while.

10. Telephone Book

Thanks to Google, very few people let their fingers walk through the Yellow Pages anymore when they’re searching for a telephone number or address. Years ago, almost every home and office had a small stack of thick telephone directories (for example, in the Metro Detroit area there were separate books for Detroit, East Area, North Oakland County, and Downriver) that were referred to regularly once Ma Bell started charging for Directory Assistance calls. The inexpensive pulp paper plus the ink and glue in the binding gave the giant tomes a much mustier, paper-y odor than a standard paperback novel.

11. Chalk Dust

Much like cafeteria food and library paste, chalk dust simply smelled like school. With so many classrooms using whiteboards, chalkboard ledges with piles of white powder on them are becoming extinct.

All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise noted. 

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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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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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