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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Early Trains Were Thought to Make Women’s Uteruses Fly Out

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Today, some of our biggest concerns about the dangers of transportation have to do with failing or clashing technologies—we’re afraid onboard GPS and other high-tech features will get mixed up, say, or even get hacked. A century and a half ago, though, our travel worries involved a lot less AI and much more spontaneous combustion and/or mutilation—imagined dangers that were just as scary, and (seemingly) just as real.

Cultural anthropologist Genevieve Bell explained to the Wall Street Journal TECH site that extreme, fearful reactions to new technology are age old, and have even picked up speed alongside our rate of innovation. Critics of early steam-spewing locomotives, for example, thought “that women’s bodies were not designed to go at 50 miles an hour,” and worried that “[female passengers’] uteruses would fly out of [their] bodies as they were accelerated to that speed”—which, for the record, they did and will not.* Others suspected that any human body might simply melt at high speeds.

CC Courtesy Pixabay

Bell attributes this kind of reaction in part to the “moral panic” that a society experiences when particularly revelatory technological advances show up—specifically, ones which interfere with or alter our relationships with time, space, and each other:

“Cars? Clearly the same. Television? Absolutely. The Internet? Yes. Mobile phones? Yes. Fountain pens? Not so much. They may have changed our relationships to other people, but they didn’t really change our relationships to time and space.” 

This society-wide panic often (unfairly) dotes on the threats an innovation might pose to women and children, and it didn’t end when we got over our locomotive fears. As automobiles gained traction in the early 1900s, they were seen by many as noisy, erratic “devil wagons” that women—thought to be prone to fainting, physical weakness, and out-of-the-blue bouts of hysteria—wouldn’t be able to control by themselves and shouldn’t be allowed to drive.

CC Courtesy Wikimedia // George Grantham Bain Collection

Nevertheless, women stuck up for their right to mobility. In 1909, 22-year-old Alice Ramsey managed to drive cross-country in a respectable 59 days and—having kept herself, her car, and her three female friends intact along the way—helped prove that women could be trusted behind the wheel.

Time’s also told us that, despite initial fears of the telephone’s possible downsides, chatting on the phone will not cause impropriety, possession, or electrocution in women. With any luck, it’ll turn out that the text-happy youngsters of today will still be able to speak in full sentences tomorrow.

[h/t: reddit user darinda777]

*It’s worth noting, though, that both men and women can risk straining or detaching certain soft connective tissues (such as those holding retinae or breasts in place) when they subject their bodies to truly rapid acceleration—so bungee jumpers be wary.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

501069-OpeningCeremony2.jpg

Opening Ceremony

To this:

501069-OpeningCeremony3.jpg

Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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