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The Social Security Number, A Biography: Part 1

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My grandfather on my mother’s side is named Joseph. His son is also named Joseph. Not Joseph Junior. Not Joseph II. Just Joseph. They’re both just Joseph [Last Name], which sometimes makes traveling with them a headache. Not long after 9/11, the lot of us went on vacation together and got held up in security whenever the TSA took issue with the fact that two different guys with the same name were booked for the same flight.

This is the kind of issue that the Social Security Administration was hoping to avoid when it began to track the earning histories of U.S. workers and determine their Social Security entitlement and benefit levels in the early 1930s. Names on their own, or partnered with addresses, wouldn’t work as identifiers for people when guys like my grandfather passed on their names to their sons, but neglected to tack on a “Junior.” While that sort of situation might not be common, how many unrelated Joe Smiths have you met in your life? In a 5-second web search, I found 4,513 in the U.S., and that probably doesn’t cover all of them. What’s more, there’s the problem of people changing their names and moving from address to address.

Some government agencies like the War Department and the Veterans Administration used fingerprints to ID people, but fingerprinting is associated with being arrested and booked in the public mind, and the SSA decided that people weren’t going to have it. Eventually, they hit upon the idea of using numbers as unique identifiers, and the Social Security Number was born.

Figuring out the Format

Initially, the number was going to consist of three alphabetic characters and five numeric characters. Only two companies at the time manufactured tabulating machines that used alphabetic characters, though, and the federal government had previously gone after them under antitrust legislation for dividing the market between them. The SSA didn’t want to turn around and give them government business, so a new, letter-free numbering scheme had to be worked out.

They considered a few different options and settled on a 9-digit number consisting of a 3-digit geographic code, a 2-digit age indicator and a 4-digit serial number. The 2-digit code was to represent the year that number’s owner reached the retirement age, and after that, their number could be recycled. That plan was scrapped when someone suggested that tying the number to age would encourage people to falsify their age when applying for a number.

In the summer of 1936, the SSA finalized the 9-digit number scheme, with the fourth and fifth digits acting as a “group number” that would be assigned in a specific sequence and allowed for the pre-numbering of registration forms.

SSN Structure

From then on, the SSN consisted of three parts: area number, group number and serial number.

The first three digits are the area number, which is assigned by geographic region. Area numbers were assigned to each state based on the anticipated need for SSNs to be assigned in them. The numbers were generally doled out in ascending order beginning with the Northeast states (but not with the most northeast of them, as we’ll learn soon) and then moving south and west—so, theoretically, a person’s number could give the SSA some information about where that person lived, enabling them to track geographic trends in benefit distribution. This never really worked out for them.

At first, the area numbers were issued to local post offices—the SSA didn’t have their own field offices yet—to assign to people, but some large companies with multiple offices, branches or stores across the country had all of their employees send their SSN applications to their national headquarters for central processing and mailing. If you worked at a bank branch in California, but the home office was in New York, your number wound up not reflecting your place of residence and didn’t tell the SSA anything useful. Later, the SSA started assigning SSNs centrally from their Baltimore office based on the ZIP code of the mailing address people put on their applications. This didn’t work out either, since someone’s mailing address doesn’t necessarily reflect where they live or work.

Some exceptions to the geographic distribution were made. Numbers 700-728, for example, weren’t assigned by region, but were reserved for railroad workers until 1963. Numbers 587-595 went to Mississippi and Florida, out of order, after the two states used up their initial runs of numbers. SSNs with the area number 000 or 666 have never, and likely won’t ever, be assigned.

Last year, the SSA decided to do away with the geographical significance of the first block of digits, and is no longer assigning them to specific states.

The second group of digits is the group number. Contrary to conspiracy theory and urban legend, these don’t reflect racial or ethnic groupings. The “group” just refers to the numerical subgroups into which the area numbers are broken down. The reason for doing this was so that early SSA administrators could break down their files into smaller, more manageable, subgroups, which allowed them to find information more easily. These groups range from 01 to 99 and are issued, within each area number, in this order: odd group numbers from 01 to 09; even numbers 10 to 98; even numbers 02 to 08; and odd numbers 11 to 99.

The last four digits are the serial number, a straight numerical series of numbers from 0001–9999 within each group.

With the number scheme figured out, the SSA was ready to start assigning numbers to the public. We’ll find out who the first social security number went to tomorrow.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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iStock
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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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