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10 Delightfully Strange Patents

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Human ingenuity knows no bounds—as these patents show.

1. REWARD CANDY DISPENSER

Patent: US 5823386 A
Published: 10/20/1998

As any multitasker knows, it can feel impossible to sit at a computer and focus on work that needs to get done. What if something happens on Facebook? How can you focus until you know who’s on the Wikipedia page of left-handed historical figures? To force concentration, many resort to draconian measures like limiting Internet use or (gasp!) going offline altogether. But the inventors of this tool tap into what behavioral scientists and kindergarten motivational speakers have long known: Treats get results.

The Reward Candy Dispenser for Personal Computers is positive reinforcement for desk jockeys. An optical sensor attaches to your screen to keep an eye on what you’re doing. When you achieve your target (say, sending that email or reading all the way through a long news story), a signal is sent to a container on your desk, and, as with a gumball machine, a single piece of candy is released into a chute. Want another? Get more work done! Lab-rat life never tasted so good.

2. LEAF GATHERING TROUSERS

Patent: US 6604245 B1
Published: 8/12/2003

With fall comes the ultimate scourge of lawn work: raking leaves. All of those gorgeous, oxygen-giving trees in your yard become instruments of torture, fiendishly littering their leafy bounty all over the lawn and sidewalk.

According to the inventor of the leaf pants, the leaves aren’t the problem. It’s the rake—that pronged horticultural nightmare that strains backs, blisters hands, and poses a real threat if left lying in tall grass. But a leaf blower isn’t the answer either. Instead, the inventor insists, what humanity needs is a method that is “compatible with the natural body movement of a person.”

Enter leaf chaps, a pair of zip-on flexible tubes that slip over pant legs with a net fastened between the two so you can gather leaves as you stroll. The net corrals the leaves and collects them in front of you, so with just a few extra steps, you’re forming piles that are easily picked up later. Not merely convenient, the chaps also promise to make you more productive. Rather than struggle with bulky tools, do something you’d be doing anyway (walking around your lawn), while getting work done! Sure, that walk is more like a waddle, but that’s the price you pay for innovation.

3. THE DAD SADDLE (AKA, THE DADDLE)

Patent: US 6241136 B1
Published: 6/5/2001

Attention, parents: Are your kids bored with the same old piggyback routine? Are you sick of getting sticky fingers in your hair every time you let them hitch a ride? Try the Dad Saddle. Paul R. Harriss, the inventor of this parental paraphernalia, noticed that while contraptions—from ergonomic backpacks to simple scarves—exist to help parents carry their babies, once the kids grow up, you’re forced to go bareback. Suffer no more! The Dad Saddle’s sturdy harness fastens around the waist and sports two pint-size stirrups for a child’s feet, “virtually eliminating the possibility of back strain.” Adjust the height of the stirrups so your little cowboy or cowgirl can hold steady. Then remind them to tip their hats before they tackle the open range.

4. THE CRISPY CEREAL SERVER

Patent: US 4986433 A
Published: 1/22/1991

From the moment John Harvey Kellogg created the first cornflake, people have been trying to solve the problem of soggy cereal. Turn your back on it for a moment too long, and even the crispiest flakes become a bowl of mush. Cereal makers can treat their products to keep them from absorbing milk, but that only delays the inevitable. But what if the solution were in the bowl itself? The ingenious Crispy Cereal Serving Piece and Method keeps your Froot Loops fresh until the very last minute, guaranteeing “the crispness of the cereal throughout even the most leisurely meal.” A bowl on the table holds just the right amount of milk, while a second bowl, holding the dry cereal, is suspended in the air by a sturdy chute. Send a spoonful down the chute into the milk when you’re ready to take a bite, and relax knowing that the rest of your breakfast is high and dry (literally).

5. THE GREENHOUSE HELMET

Patent: US 4605000 A
Published: 8/12/1986

Everyone knows there’s nothing like a walk outdoors for a breath of fresh air. But in a hectic, urban life, you may be too busy to plan a nature walk—let alone one around the corner. Not to worry: The greenhouse helmet will bring nature to you at a moment’s notice. All you need to do is strap it to your face! A self-enclosed, anti-fog-treated dome sits over the wearer’s head, containing multiple shelves to hold tiny plants inside. As you exhale, the plants soak up the carbon dioxide, supposedly stocking you in return with the purest oxygen money can buy. The helmet even has a two-way intercom system, so you can communicate with friends in the not-so-great outdoors. Now, no matter where you are, the air will always be as fresh as a daisy. Have fun watering your head, though.

6. REALLY COOL SHOES

Patent: US 5375430 A
Published: 12/27/1994

Late summer’s swelter is the perfect excuse for wannabe exhibitionists to strip down to fashion’s bare minimum, from top to toe. But for those whose tootsies are less than sandal-ready, one ingenious inventor came up with a solution: air conditioned shoes. As you step, a series of chambers in the heel contract like mini-bellows, exerting force on a set of coolant-filled coils that turn the ambient heat into chilled air. That air is then expelled through a pad running under the foot, literally cooling your heels. And with a quick switcheroo, the cooling chambers reverse their function, becoming a foot warmer for winter months. Finally, a shoe for all seasons.

7. THE AUTOMATIC PET PETTER

Patent: US 20060207518 A1
Published: 9/21/2006

As any kid with a puppy knows, pets are a lot of work. They need food, exercise, grooming, poop scooping, and hardest of all: nonstop physical affection. Thankfully, inventor Anthony Steffen created a machine to make life easier. The automatic dog petter not only strokes your pup (or feline) with a mechanical hand; it also plays audio so you can provide your furry friend with a comforting pep talk or their preferred cover of “Hound Dog.” Fido need only stand on a motion-sensor platform, and it’s just like you’re there with him. As Patent 20,060,207,518 reminds us, “It is a fact of modern life that most people work away from their homes. If they have pets, these pets will often be alone for many hours.” This may be a fact of modern life, but so are robots, and both you and Fido will be better for it.

8. SLED-FREE SLEDDING/SLED PANTS

Patent: US 5573256 A
Published: 11/12/1996

Little is more exhilarating than zipping down a snow-covered hill. And little is more humbling that trudging back to the top, toboggan in tow. That breathless, awkward, sweaty climb is the conundrum that Patent 5,573,256 seeks to solve. “Until now, a sled capable of being attached to the body of the user and worn before, during, and after a downhill sled run has not been invented,” writes inventor Brent Farley. Fortunately for us, he fixed that. His liberating contraption allows you to simply strap sled chaps to your snow pants and enjoy ride after unencumbered ride.

9. THE BANANA SUITCASE

Patent: US 6612440 B1
Published: 2003

It’s snack o’clock and your banana got horribly bruised in your bag on the way to work. What now? Stale party mix from the break-room vending machine again? Thick skins notwithstanding, bananas are subject to all manner of abuse, but the Banana Suitcase keeps your favorite fruit safe and fresh as it travels in this perforated, foam-lined case that hinges shut. That is, as long as it fits into this one-size-only carrying case! No wonder the invention didn’t exactly peel off.

10. THE GERBIL VEST

Patent: US 5901666 A
Published: 5/11/1999

Thanks to this clever invention, you can make your guinea pig live up to its name. Or you can take your hamster grocery shopping, bring your chinchilla on a morning jog, or sign that bank loan with your gerbil’s moral support. The technology is simple: “A vest or belt is integrally formed with tubular, pet-receiving passageways that extend around the wearer’s body and terminate in pocket-like chambers,” the patent says. “Outer wall portions of the passageway are transparent so that a pet moving along the passageways can be seen by a spectator.” The pet display vest is not available in all, or frankly any, stores.

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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox
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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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10 Hush-Hush Facts About L.A. Confidential
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Warner Bros.

On this day 20 years ago, a rising star director, a writer who thought he’d never get the gig, and a remarkable cast got together to make a film about the corrupt underbelly of 1950s Los Angeles, and the men and women who littered its landscape. This was L.A. Confidential, a film so complex that its creator (legendary crime writer James Ellroy) thought it was “unadaptable.” In the end, it was one of the most acclaimed movies of the 1990s, a film noir classic that made its leading actors into even bigger stars, and which remains an instantly watchable masterpiece to this day. Here are 10 facts about how it got made.

1. THE SCRIPTING PROCESS WAS TOUGH.

Writer-director Curtis Hanson had been a longtime James Ellroy fan when he finally read L.A. Confidential, and the characters in that particular Ellroy novel really spoke to him, so he began working on a script. Meanwhile, Brian Helgeland—originally contracted to write an unproduced Viking film for Warner Bros.—was also a huge Ellroy fan, and lobbied hard for the studio to give him the scripting job. When he learned that Hanson already had it, the two met, and bonded over their mutual admiration of Ellroy’s prose. Their passion for the material was clear, but it took two years to get the script done, with a number of obstacles.

"He would turn down other jobs; I would be doing drafts for free,” Helgeland said. “Whenever there was a day when I didn't want to get up anymore, Curtis tipped the bed and rolled me out on the floor."

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY INTENDED AS A MINISERIES.

When executive producer David Wolper first read Ellroy’s novel, he saw the dense, complex story as the perfect fodder for a television miniseries, and was promptly turned down by all the major networks at the time.

3. JAMES ELLROY DIDN’T THINK THE BOOK COULD BE ADAPTED.

Though Wolper was intrigued by the idea of telling the story onscreen, Ellroy and his agent laughed at the thought. The author felt his massive book would never fit on any screen.

“It was big, it was bad, it was bereft of sympathetic characters,” Ellroy said. “It was unconstrainable, uncontainable, and unadaptable.”

4. CURTIS HANSON SOLD THE FILM WITH CLASSIC LOS ANGELES IMAGES.

To get the film made, Hanson had to convince New Regency Pictures head Arnon Milchan that it was worth producing. To do this, he essentially put together a collage of classic Los Angeles imagery, from memorable locations to movie stars, including the famous image of Robert Mitchum leaving jail after his arrest for using marijuana.

"Now you've seen the image of L.A. that was sold to get everybody to come here. Let's peel back the image and see where our characters live,” Hanson said.

Milchan was sold.

5. KEVIN SPACEY WAS ON HANSON’S WISH LIST FOR YEARS.

Though the other stars of the film were largely discoveries of the moment, Kevin Spacey was apparently someone Hanson wanted to work with for years. Spacey described Hanson as a director “who’d been trying for years and years and years to get me cast in films he made, and the studio always rejected me.” After Spacey won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects, Hanson called the actor and said “I think I’ve got the role, and I think they’re not gonna say no this time.”

6. SPACEY’S CHARACTER IS BASED ON DEAN MARTIN.

Warner Bros.

Though he cast relative unknowns in Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, Hanson wanted an American movie star for the role of Jack Vincennes, and decided on Kevin Spacey. In an effort to convince Spacey to take the role, Hanson invited him to dine at L.A.’s famous Formosa Cafe (where scenes in the film are actually set). While at the cafe, Spacey asked a vital question:

“If it was really 1952, and you were really making this movie, who would you cast as Jack Vincennes? And [Hanson] said ‘Dean Martin.’”

At that point, Spacey looked up at the gallery of movie star photos which line the cafe, and realized Martin’s photo was right above him.

“To this day, I don’t know whether he sat us in that booth on purpose, but there was Dino looking down at me,” Spacey said.

After his meeting with Hanson, Spacey watched Martin’s performances in Some Came Running (1958) and Rio Bravo (1959), and realized that both films featured characters who mask vulnerability with a layer of cool. That was the genesis of Jack Vincennes.

7. HANSON CHOSE MUCH OF THE MUSIC BEFORE FILMING.

To help set the tone for his period drama, Hanson began selecting music of the early 1950s even before filming began, so he could play it on set as the actors went to work. Among his most interesting choices: When Jack Vincennes sits in a bar, staring at the money he’s just been bribed with, Dean Martin’s “Powder Your Face With Sunshine (Smile! Smile! Smile!)” plays, a reference to both the character’s melancholy, and to Spacey and Hanson’s decision to base the character on Martin.

8. THE CINEMATOGRAPHY WAS INSPIRED BY ROBERT FRANK PHOTOGRAPHS.

To emphasize realism and period accuracy, cinematographer Dante Spinotti thought less about the moving image, and more about still photographs. In particular, he used photographer Robert Frank’s 1958 collection "The Americans" as a tool, and relied less on artificial light and more on environmental light sources like desk lamps.

"I tried to compose shots as if I were using a still camera,” Spinotti said. “I was constantly asking myself, 'Where would I be if I were holding a Leica?' This is one reason I suggested shooting in the Super 35 widescreen format; I wanted to use spherical lenses, which for me have a look and feel similar to still-photo work.”

9. THE FINAL STORY TWIST IS NOT IN THE BOOK.

Warner Bros.

[SPOILER ALERT] In the film, Jack Vincennes, Ed Exley, and Bud White are all chasing a mysterious crime lord known as “Rollo Tomasi,” who turns out to be their own LAPD colleague, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). Though Vincennes, Exley, and White are all native to Ellroy’s novel, the Tomasi name is entirely an invention of the film.

10. ELLROY APPROVED OF THE MOVIE.

To adapt L.A. Confidential for the screen, Hanson and Helgeland condensed Ellroy’s original novel, boiling the story down to a three-person narrative and ditching other subplots so they could get to the heart of the three cops at the center of the movie. Ellroy, in the end, was pleased with their choices.

“They preserved the basic integrity of the book and its main theme, which is that everything in Los Angeles during this era of boosterism and yahooism was two-sided and two-faced and put out for cosmetic purposes,” Ellroy said. “The script is very much about the [characters'] evolution as men and their lives of duress. Brian and Curtis took a work of fiction that had eight plotlines, reduced those to three, and retained the dramatic force of three men working out their destiny. I've long held that hard-boiled crime fiction is the history of bad white men doing bad things in the name of authority. They stated that case plain.”

Additional Sources:
Inside the Actors Studio: Kevin Spacey (2000)

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