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The First Time News Was Fit To Print

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A perk of being a weekend subscriber to The New York Times is the access to their online archives. (A less reliable perk: actually getting the paper.) I've decided to use this privilege to determine exactly when people and things were elevated to the level of ink-worthiness.

The Simpsons
December 23, 1988

It is rare that an underground cartoonist finds himself in demand for commercial work, but Matt Groening has made the leap. Mr. Groening is the creator of Life in Hell, an anarchic strip that appears in 103 publications, mostly alternative newsweeklies. Now, The Simpsons, a strange cartoon family he invented for television's Tracey Ullman Show, will be featured in a new ad by Lintas: New York for Butterfinger candy bars, a Planters Life Savers product that makes its debut Jan. 2.

iPod
October 24, 2001

Apple Computer introduced a portable music player today and declared that the new gadget, called the iPod, was so much easier to use that it would broaden a nascent market in the way the Macintosh once helped make the personal computer accessible to a more general audience. But while industry analysts said the device appeared to be as consumer friendly as the company said it was, they also pointed to its relatively limited potential audience, around seven million owners of the latest Macintosh computers. Apple said it had not yet decided whether to introduce a version of the music player for computers with the Windows operating system, which is used by more than 90 percent of personal computer users.

Barack Obama
February 6, 1990

The Harvard Law Review, generally considered the most prestigious in the country, elected the first black president in its 104-year history today. The job is considered the highest student position at Harvard Law School. The new president of the Review is Barack Obama, a 28-year-old graduate of Columbia University who spent four years heading a community development program for poor blacks on Chicago's South Side before enrolling in law school. His late father, Barack Obama, was a finance minister in Kenya and his mother, Ann Dunham, is an American anthropologist now doing fieldwork in Indonesia. Mr. Obama was born in Hawaii. "The fact that I've been elected shows a lot of progress," Mr. Obama said today in an interview. "It's encouraging."

Jon Stewart
November 4, 1988

Also performing are the stand-up comedians Bob Shaw, Ray Romano and Jon Stewart. The cover charge is $10 tonight, $12 tomorrow, and $7 on Sunday, and there is a two-drink minimum. Reservations are suggested.

Microsoft
August 13, 1981

Instead of having to type detailed instructions on a keyboard, using a special language, in a few years users will be able to communicate with computers more like they do with fellow human beings. Computers might develop the ability to understand the particular nuances and style of their owners. "They will have as much stored knowledge of what you know, what you've said, what you've done than any friend would have the patience to learn," predicts William H. Gates, president of Microsoft, a Bellevue, Wash., company that has designed software for many personal computer manufacturers, including I.B.M.

George W. Bush (?)
October 12, 1972

A half dozen years ago the Americans were known for their parties, but that is largely a thing of the past....As a result, one American official said, "we're being downgraded a lot" by other diplomats who are tired of the cold buffet at United States functions. But happily, perhaps, George W. Bush, the American representative, has a flair for off-beat party ideas. A few weeks ago he took a number of guests up to the Bronx Zoo to see 550 kinds of birds. No other mission topped that number.

I guess this could possibly be a different GWB. More likely, it's his father. Anyway, what other subjects should I tackle? Let me know and I'll be back with a sequel.

(I plan to run this feature into the ground.)

Update: Lots more first mentions here.

T.jpgWant complete access to The New York Times archives, which go all the way back to 1851? Become an NYT subscriber.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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
entertainment
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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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