Who among us hasn't been asked by a teacher or a boss to "think outside the box"? It's all well and good when you're looking at a word problem on a Denny's application, not so much when you're staring down a problem with lives on the line. So you have to admire the guys who improvised the following:
#5. Building a Supercomputer Out of Hundreds of PlayStations
The U.S. military needed a supercomputer, but didn't want to spend the millions of dollars they typically cost. That second part may surprise you -- we all tend to assume that the U.S. military is on the cutting edge of all things tech (something to do with having more than a half trillion dollars to spend every year). But they're not just a bunch of big kids buying expensive toys with unlimited budgets -- they have hard choices to make, just like us.
"Nope, no boner flag -- we have our grownup hats on today."
The Creative Solution:
So they bought almost 2,000 Sony PlayStation 3s and hooked them together to see what would happen.
OK, we're being a bit unfair there. Video game consoles have some serious horsepower for the few hundred dollars they cost, so the solution made sense. The Department of Defense's 1,716 PlayStation 3s were formed into the massive computational megamachine known as the "Condor Cluster." This is what it looks like:
Imagine the photorealistic Duke Nukem crotch bulge that thing could generate.
For one-tenth of the cost of a traditional supercomputer, the Condor Cluster is also using one-tenth of a traditional supercomputer's power. But instead of using top secret proprietary technology, the Cluster is open source. It's even been opened up to universities, who are using it to do everything from create artificial neural networks to build models that will prove Einstein's theory of relativity.
They could have saved $4.2 million by shopping on Black Friday.
And here's where the Condor is really creative -- instead of letting one massive machine do all the work you'd expect from one of the world's 40 fastest computers, the system can rearrange its own workload, farming out assignments to idle computers around the world. Not bad for a big-ass pile of kid's toys.
The military is actually famous for this kind of MacGyver thinking, like ...
#4. Using Silly String and Shaving Cream to Thwart Bombs
The War on Terror introduced us to a new kind of warfare that involves less open battles between armies and more planting improvised bombs for soldiers to stumble across (for reference, see The Hurt Locker). For instance, when the enemy knows that part of the other side's job is to patrol abandoned buildings, their own job is as easy as planting some explosives and running a thin wire across a doorway to set it off. If the building is dark, there's no way you see the wire until it's too late. Boom.
So how can you detect tripwires in that kind of environment? Maybe some kind of state-of-the-art sonar system? A wire-sniffing dog? A bomb-proof robot to take point?
Nine out of 10 bomb specialists say "kitty on a Roomba." Also, "Aww."
The Creative Solution:
How about Silly String?
Yes, that multicolored stuff in the can that kids squirt up their noses and jackasses spray out of their fly at parties is currently being used by U.S. forces to help detect deadly explosive booby traps.
You can already picture how it works: Spray the Silly String across and through the entire vertical length of the doorway. If there are any tripwires there, the Silly String will catch on them and hang off the wire -- the spray is so light that it won't trip the detonator in the process.
Mike on Maui
Silly String isn't standard-issue equipment, by the way -- most of this is the result of one woman, Marcelle Shriver, who organized the delivery of over 120,000 cans of the stuff to Iraq after her son was taught the technique by a group of U.S. Marines.
According to one member of the top brass, this is all completely cool because soldiers aren't forbidden from improvising stuff like this. Which is lucky, really, considering we're also using shaving cream to warn troops about hidden bombs.
"Well, I can be pretty explosive at times. Oh God you just shot me why."
After discovering an IED or roadside bomb, troops will simply squirt the damn thing with the foam so that troops following up behind will know where not to step. Oh, and it's also worth bearing in mind that this technique didn't originate from Iraq; one of its first proponents was "Stormin' Norman" Schwarzkopf, who, after hearing that a group of his soldiers were trapped inside of a Vietnamese minefield without any equipment capable of marking the mines so that they could escape safely, ordered an airdrop of shaving cream to them.
You might say that it was a close one.
The community drive responsible for shipping all of this stuff out to Iraq, Operation Shaving Cream, also recently passed its goal of raising 10,000 cans. And, hey! There's totally a link you can click right here that will take you to somewhere where you donate money to buy more of the stuff.
#3. The Navy SEALs Get Literal
As much as everybody loves the Navy SEALs in the wake of the bin Laden thing, we have to admit they're not perfect. Like they can't walk on water or hold their breath indefinitely. And they can't find underwater mines without risking their own asses. So it has to be robots this time, right? They have swimming anti-mine robots?
No, of course not. Because this is 2012 and teaching robot dinosaurs to love is more important.
The Creative Solution:
They're using seals -- not elite super soldiers, but actual SeaWorld-style sea lions -- to assist with identifying underwater weapons and evildoers.
Animals have been used in war forever, but never with this much style. Knowing that sea lions can swim 25 miles per hour and dive 1,000 feet, they're the perfect candidates to detect and defuse underwater bombs. Especially since their natural sonar is extremely effective, according to Admiral Snelson of British Naval Command.
"Red wire or blue wire, red or blue? Jesus Christ, I'm fucking colorblind."
Dolphins and sea lions are trained not only to detect underwater mines, but also to alert the Marines if they detect danger. Some of them are trained to disarm bombs, and some are even trained on how to locate a human intruder and cuff him with a GPS tracker. If necessary, they may even follow the suspect onto land, honking loudly to alert the troops to their position ... which is 100 percent the least awesome way to get caught by an opposing army.
"I'M ONTO YOU. STAY STILL WHILE I FLOP TOWARD YOU ADORABLY."
Not that the military has a monopoly on somewhat insane outside-the-box solutions. For instance, if you go to a Russian airport, you'll see them ...