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Syngrafii

8 Things Invented by Famous Writers

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Syngrafii

We might not often think of writers as having a creative life outside of the page, but that sells some of our more celebrated authors short. In addition to penning some amazing literature, these 8 writers also came up with innovative inventions.

1. THE SELF-PASTING SCRAPBOOK // MARK TWAIN

One of history’s greatest humorists, Twain found nothing funny about the laborious process of creating and maintaining personal scrapbooks. The glues and pastes were messy, hard to dispense, and sometimes resulted in torn mementos from his travels. Instead, he developed a scrapbook with the adhesive pre-applied to pages; the user would only need to moisten the glue in order to make the page functional. The idea was patented in 1873. In 1885, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article reported that sales of the scrapbook had netted Twain $50,000 in profit.

2. THE WATERBED // ROBERT HEINLEIN

Heinlein’s career as a science-fiction author allowed him to prognosticate about a number of potential inventions, but it was his time spent as a tuberculosis patient in the 1930s that provided him with inspiration for a more comfortable bed. Convalescing during his illness, Heinlein conceived of a bed that used water instead of springs. The notion was first described by the author in 1942 and later used in many of his novels, including Stranger in a Strange Land. When inventor Charles Hall tried to patent a similar idea, it was denied on the grounds that Heinlein (who never pursued a real-world application for it) came up with it first. 

3. THE PRINGLES CHIP MACHINE // GENE WOLFE

Prior to beginning his contributions to the science fiction genre with The Fifth Head of Cerberus in 1972, Wolfe was a mechanical engineering major who accepted a job with Procter & Gamble. During his employment, Wolfe devised a way for the unique, shingle-shaped Pringles chips to be fried and then dumped into their cylindrical packaging. (Despite his resemblance to Mr. Pringle, there is no evidence the chip mascot was based on him.)

4. GEOSTATIONARY SATELLITE // ARTHUR C. CLARKE

Though Clarke is not directly credited with the development and execution of satellites used to broadcast communication waves, he's widely acknowledged as the guy who got people thinking about it. The sci-fi author wrote a paper in 1945 proposing that in addition to satellites being used as refill stations for spacecraft, they could also be used to emit “world-wide ultra high-frequency radio services, including television.” Telstar, the first satellite to take advantage of the idea, came into service just 17 years later. The geostationary orbit—the distance at which a satellite can remain stationary during the Earth’s 24-hour rotation—later became known as the Clarke belt.

5. A CEREBRAL SHUNT // ROALD DAHL

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Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The BFG have brought considerable happiness to children, but his biggest contribution to a kid's well-being may have been to his own five-month-old son, Theo. When the boy was hospitalized after a car accident in 1960, Dahl worked with researchers to conceive of a valve that could drain fluid build-up from the brain. Known as the Wade-Dahl-Till valve, it went on to be used in thousands of cranial surgeries.

6. THE BACKLESS BRASSIERE // CARESSE CROSBY

Not overly fond of wearing a corset, Mary Phelps Jacob decided to tweak the concept by patenting a design in 1914 that involved tying two handkerchiefs together for anatomical support. Jacob, a socialite who later changed her name to Caresse Crosby and wrote poetry and erotica, sold the patent for $1500. 

7. POSTAGE CASE // LEWIS CARROLL

When he wasn’t occupied with Alice’s exploits in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll busied himself with a better way to organize and display the many denominations of postage stamps used by the British post office in the late 1800s. Carroll’s 1889 postage case was made up of several pockets separating the amounts and labeled so Carroll could reach for the right ones in a hurry. He dressed the case with an illustration of Alice on the front flap and the Cheshire Cat on the back. A first edition sold for over $8000 at a Christie’s auction in 1998.

8. LONG-DISTANCE AUTOGRAPH PEN (LONGPEN) // MARGARET ATWOOD

Canadian novelist Atwood had been drained by lengthy book tours when she struck upon the idea of “appearing” in bookstores remotely. Atwood’s “LongPen” allowed her to remain at home while readers approached a table and greeted her via a videoconferencing system; after settling on a personalized message, Atwood wrote the inscription on an LCD screen that was shortly communicated to a robotic arm in the bookstore—the arm carried out the signature with a pen. After its debut in 2006, Atwood’s invention had some hiccups: Visitors to a Manhattan signing experienced technical malfunctions and had to wait for signed books to be mailed to them. The invention is currently being examined for applications in banking and security.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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