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The First Time News Was Fit To Print, IV

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I told you I was going to beat this concept into the ground. To review, these excerpts mark the first time The New York Times deemed our selected topics newsworthy. Here are Part I, Part II and Part III.

Digital Camera
May 29, 1991

The Eastman Kodak Company took its first real step into digital photography by introducing an electronic camera system that can turn a conventional Nikon into a high-tech electronic camera. Kodak's professional digital camera system will sell for about $20,000 and is intended primarily for photojournalists and government surveillance, the company said. The system also marks Kodak's first move into pure electronic photography, where images are captured and created without film.

Larry David
March 3, 1979

larryDavid.jpgWord from uptown is that a new young cabaret troupe called Metropolis has extracted some tangy satiric juice from the New York scene. Among their sketch-and-song targets are the New School, primitive art, affirmative-action groups, block parties, the Hare Krishna sect, French cinema, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Mayor Koch....The new Metropolis troupers, who also contributed to the writing, are Judy Engles, Marjorie Gross, Jane Ranallo, Larry David, Jeremy Sage and Gary Yudman.

Keep reading for The Drudge Report, VCRs, Ulysses S. Grant and even restless leg syndrome.

Drudge Report
December 30, 1996

drudge.jpgCorporate sites are usually the polar opposite of the homegrown, wildly original sites that drove the Web's early popularity. In the spirit of remembering whence we came, what follows is a list of decidedly uncorporate Web sites, compiled for your enjoyment andpossibly, inspiration.

The Drudge Report (http://www.lainet.com/drudge/)

A remarkable site that links to virtually every magazine, newspaper or news service on the Web and includes Drudge's own commentary. For its sheer utility, just moved to the top of my bookmark list.

These quirky sites are a minuscule sample of the diversity on the Web today. Turning the Internet into a mass medium is fine, but it is far more thrilling to contemplate what might happen in a world where more people have the means to express their creativity to each other -- without the censors, filters and gatekeepers that the mass media employ.

Ulysses S. Grant
April 10, 1862

ulysses.jpgGeneral Grant is just forty years of age, is a native of Ohio, a graduate of West Point, and served honorably in the Mexican War....Upon the breaking out of the present war, he offered his services to Governor Yates, and...served until promoted as a Brigadier-General, with commission and rank from the 17th of May, 1861....It was reported that he was under a cloud with the superior military authorities, and the most absurd stories were circulated as to the cause thereof.

Restless Leg Syndrome
August 20, 1991

RestlessLeg.gifInsomnia has all sorts of causes, Dr. Wagner emphasized. "If you can't sleep because you have restless leg syndrome, because you stop breathing or because you are depressed, a rocking bed won't help," he said. "If it does help, it probably means your insomnia was fairly mild and transient anyway."

The VCR*
June 13, 1979

VCR.gifAlong with cable television, pay television and new networks distributed by satellite, the 80's promise a burgeoning of the home video market. The key components of this new field are to be video tape-recording units and phonographlike devices that play video disks....The disk technology has been slow in developing for the mass consumer market and is still in the test-market stage. But the home video recorders, known as VCR's, have in the last three years proliferated sufficiently to create a separate programming industry, with more than 100 companies already engaged in the production or distribution of prerecorded tape cassettes.

*This was the first time the Times called the VCR the VCR, which was referred to by other names in the late 1970s. Including in this fantastic article: "The Sony Corporation announced yesterday that it planned to begin selling next spring a three-hour video tape cassette for use with a new home television recorder, now limited to two hours, that carries a suggested list price of $1,300."

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
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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