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The Social Security Number, A Biography: Part 3

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The Social Security Office in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

We’ve already talked about the birth of the Social Security Number, its form and function, and early assignments. Now, we’ll look at how the SSN went from simply being a way for the Social Security Administration to correctly determine people's Social Security entitlement and benefit levels to being an indispensable part of someone’s identity used for dealing with the government and private businesses—and the problems that come with that.

The Expanding Use of the SSN

Social Security Numbers were initially cooked up by the SSA as unique identifiers for people so their Social Security accounts could be tracked and maintained. Within a few years, others began to catch on to the idea that a unique number that hundreds of thousands of people already had would be an efficient and easy way to identify people and keep records.

In the early 1940s, an executive order made other federal agencies start using the SSN for identifying people in new federal record systems. Over the next few decades, legislation required the number as part of people’s records with the IRS, state departments of transportation, federal loan programs and other instances. The feds also chose not to put too many restrictions on use of the numbers in the private sector, and its convenience led to its use as an identifier by banks and credit unions, utility companies, landlords, colleges, universities and medical offices.

With its widespread use and its connection to so many facets of a person’s life, the SSN has become a favorite tool of identity thieves. To combat this, government agencies use an SSA verification system to ensure that a given pairing of a name and SSN matches the SSA’s master records. Enrolled private businesses can use the system, too, if they can provide proof of recent consent from the number’s owner for the release of the information.

The Most Frequently Stolen Identity

Hilda Schrader Whitcher. Photo Courtesy of SSA.Gov

The Federal Trade Commision estimates some 9 million Americans get their identities stolen each year, but one person appears to have had the dubious honor of having her SSN swiped more than anyone else. Her name was Hilda Schrader Whitcher, and she was the secretary of a wallet manufacturer who thought it would be funny to put her actual SSN on the sample card fitted into his product’s card holder. The cards, printed in red at about half the size of a real card and stamped with “SPECIMEN” in big letters, were obviously not the real deal, but many people who bought one of the wallets began using the card and the number as their own. By the time the wallets had been on the market for a while, the SSA estimates that more than 40,000 people were using the number. While the FBI called on Hilda to ask her about all the uses of her SSN, the SSA voided the number and started a PR campaign to point out that people couldn’t just use the number that came with their wallet. They also gave Hilda a new number, which she kept to herself.

The trend of using the SSN as an unofficial “national ID number” has been shifting in recent years. In 2008, the federal government rescinded the old executive order requiring federal agencies to use the number as an identifier, and the SSA, FTC and President's Task Force on Identity Theft have all encouraged the government and the private sector to scale back on its use.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]