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The Social Security Number, A Biography: Part 2

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Social Security office in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Last time, we looked at the birth of the Social Security Number, why it was needed and how it was structured. Once the form and function of the number was settled, the Social Security Administration tackled the job of getting their creation assigned to people.

Who got the first Social Security Number?

Without their own field offices, the SSA relied on the Postal Service to be their boots on the ground. Forty-five thousand post offices helped assign and distribute the first batch of SSNs; 1074 of those offices even tasked employees with typing up the Social Security cards that went with the numbers. In November 1936, the post offices started contacting local employers to find out how many employees they had and then distributed SSN applications accordingly. Once these forms were returned, the post offices assigned an SSN to each person, made up a card for them, and copied the assignment to the SSA in Baltimore for the master files. This was supposed to be done on Tuesday the 24th.

Because the completed applications could be brought to a post office in person or returned in the mail, and the numbers and cards distributed at the offices or by letter, and because hundreds of thousands of SSNs were issued on that same day (or earlier, if a post office didn’t follow its instructions), it’s difficult to say who the first person to actually get their number was.

Meanwhile, at the SSA headquarters in Baltimore, the number assignments were being broken down into groups of 1000 for processing into the master files. When the first group was done, the head of the operation pulled the top record off the stack and opened it. It might not have been the first number assigned to a person—though some newspapers reported it as such the next day—or the first card typed, but as far as the SSA was concerned, it was the first official Social Security record, and it was symbolic enough.

The number was 055-09-0001, and it belonged to 23-year-old John D. Sweeney, Jr., of New Rochelle, New York. Sweeney unfortunately did not live long enough to ever receive his Social Security benefits, dying of a heart attack at the age of 61.

Who got the lowest Social Security Number?

The SSA had some control over where numbers were issued because of the early geographic distribution of the area number. The lowest numbers went to the northeast states, and while Maine, the most northeasterly of them, should have gotten the block of numbers starting in 001, that group number actually went to New Hampshire.

This was done so that the lowest possible SSN, 001-01-0001, could be given to Social Security Board Chairman and former New Hampshire governor John G. Winant. He passed on the number, so the SSA then offered it to John Campbell, a Regional Representative of the Federal Bureau of Old Age Benefits. He didn’t want it either. The SSA finally decided to just assign it to the first New Hampshire applicant, Grace D. Owen of Concord.

Who got the first Social Security payment?

In the first few years of Social Security’s existence, benefits were paid out as a single lump sum. The first of these payments went to Ernest Ackerman of Cleveland, Ohio, who had excellent timing and retired just one day after the program was put into action. He had five cents withheld from his last paycheck as a Social Security payment and, upon retiring, received 17 cents in benefits.

In 1940, the program switched to monthly payments, and the first check was sent to Ida May Fuller of Ludlow, Vermont, for the amount of $22.54. That doesn't seem like much, but Ida made out like a bandit on Social Security over her lifetime. She worked for 3 years under the program and contributed $24.75 before retiring, but lived to age 100 and collected almost $22,000 in benefits.

Tomorrow: How the Social Security Number became a major tool in recordkeeping and identification.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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