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5 Vintage Appliances That Could've Killed You

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While leaking gas, frayed power cords, and garbage disposal mishaps continue to plague users of appliances, automated domestic assistance used to be more dangerous—a lot more dangerous. Take a look at some products no one but a personal injury lawyer would still endorse.

1. Toxic Refrigerators

In use since the early 20th century, early consumer refrigerator designs relied heavily on ether, ammonia, and other toxic gases to help the cooling process. (Sulfur dioxide and methyl formate, flammable and corrosive to the eyes, were among the worst offenders.) So long as the material was encapsulated, there was no problem. But should the appliance fail due to eroding pipes—or if a repairman wasn’t careful—owners would get a lungful. When Albert Einstein read a newspaper story about an entire family dying in just such a mishap, he and Leo Szilard teamed up to design a better refrigerator. Before they could change the world, Freon gas became the standard for coolers; inventor Tom Midgley even demonstrated its safety by huffing it in front of an audience during an awards ceremony. (Eventually, modern fridge makers would ditch Freon, too, after the gas was found to be bad for the environment.)   

2. Toaster

Toasters actually pre-date sliced bread by upwards of 30 years, but early models look very little like the toasters of today: The bread wasn’t lowered in via a little mini-elevator, and users would have to manually turn the bread to toast the other side. The first electric toaster, the Eclipse, debuted in 1893. In addition to having to watch the toast carefully, the “coils” conducting heat were actually iron wires that melted easily, creating a fire hazard any Christmas tree would envy. Nickel-chromium alloy eventually became the standard heating element—though early 20th century models were often screwed into light sockets for power.

3. Hair Drying the Asbestos Way

The dangers of asbestos are well-documented: the tiny particles hang in the air, small enough to be inhaled but “prickly” enough for the lungs to have trouble expelling them, which can lead to a form of cancer, called mesothelioma, to develop. There is thought to be no safe level of exposure to the minerals, and use of new materials containing asbestos (insulation, kitchen tile, home siding) was outlawed in 1989 (but a lot of those laws were overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1991). Prior to that, one unusual source of contamination was the hair dryer. Manufacturers—including Conair and General Electric—produced models that would literally blow the substance directly into the face of the user. A recall was initiated in 1979, though it was largely unsuccessful: Only an estimated three million of 18 million dryers were recovered.    

4. The Kenmore Indoor Garbage Burner

Little has been written about this unfortunate offering from Sears, which promised homeowners circa 1952 that they’d be spared the effort of burning their trash outdoors. With the smoke exhausting outside, garbage could be eliminated anywhere in the home. “Right in the kitchen,” the ad copy promised. “You save steps by on-the-spot disposal.” The price for residential incineration and the increased probability of burning your house down: $39.88.

5. The Mangler

Laundry appliances did not start out with stellar reputations. When Stephen King was a boy, his mother operated a speed-ironer that her co-workers had dubbed “the mangler,” a sinister piece of equipment that would later inspire a short story of the same name. Prior to the advent of the spin cycle, clothes washers squeezed out excess wash water using a wringer, a giant set of rolling pins exerting 800 pounds of pressure that ingested fabric—and anything else that happened to get in the way. Anyone trapped often had to try and pull the power cord out of the socket, as on/off switches weren’t yet commonplace. Fingers were lost to exposed gears; in one incident, a young girl’s braid became trapped, scalping her.      

Wringer washers remained inexplicably popular for years, surviving the introduction of automated machines. A 1964 report in the American Journal of Public Health estimated over 17 million households owned one and expressed concern over repeated “crushing injuries” [PDF]. One fatality was mentioned. Long the scourge of the appliance world, antique and newly-manufactured wringers are still in use today by those looking to conserve water.

All images courtesty of iStock 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]

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