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The First Time News Was Fit To Print, VII

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In case you're new here, we've been poking around the archives of The New York Times to find first mentions worth mentioning. These are excerpts from the first articles written on selected topics.

Lance Armstrong

May 13, 1991

Armstrong May Not Win, But Watch This Space
Lance Armstrong is a boy doing a man's job, a 19-year-old American amateur racing against some of the world's best professional bicycle riders. He will not win the 11-day Tour Du Pont, which stopped here today for a circuit race. At the end of the 1,100 miles, however, he may be among the leaders. But he will certainly leave an impression. He has already. He is the star of the United States national amateur team, one of the 15 international teams in this race.

* * *
Many racing people liken Armstrong to Greg LeMond, the American who has won three of the last five Tour de France races. Not Armstrong. "I'm not the next Greg LeMond," he said. "I'm the first me."

Gatorade

August 27, 1967

Chocolate-Flavored Soft Drinks And Slush Are Selling Briskly
gatorade_bottle.jpg Perhaps the most unusual soft drink to be announced in some years is a lemon-lime- flavored product called Gatorade, which will be produced by Stokely-Van Camp, Inc., food packer of Indianapolis. The new product, not yet on the market, is a water solution of glucose, inorganic salts and flavorings and was designed to quench thirst, particularly during periods of physical exertion. It has been tested in Florida by the University of Florida athletes to quench their thirst in training periods and during actual competition. It is said by Stokely-Van Camp to be absorbed by the body 12 times faster than water.

Keep reading for Aerosmith, apartheid and more.

Aerosmith

April 2, 1973

aerosmith.jpgKinks Concert Blends Artistry and Appeal
The Kinks have been a leading rock 'n roll band for nearly 10 years now, and their appearance Friday night at the Fordham University gymnasium in the Bronx made it clear that they are still one of the finest groups around... Aerosmith, the opening act, played loud, derivative rock, distinguished only by Steve Tyler's fawning imitation of Mick Jagger.

Apartheid

March 12, 1949

malan.jpgSouth African Chief Attributes
Election Victory to Policy

Dr. Daniel F. Malan, South Africa's Prime Minister, whose Nationalist party emerged victorious in the provincial elections, today hailed the results as "gratifying" and an indication that South Africa approved of his policy of "apartheid" (racial segregation) in a message replying to the opposition leader, Field Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts.

President Josiah Bartlet

September 22, 1999

bartlet.jpgAll the President's Quips:
Levity at the White House

The best thing about The West Wing is that it has a political point of view. In the first episode it tackles the religious right with a vehemence rare in politics or entertainment. The show's worst element "“ and in tonight's opening it is overwhelmingly bad "“ is that its ideas and drama are watered down, as if to make them palatable to a quasi-intelligent audience. The West Wing is in the middle of something, all right; what it turns out to be is middlebrow....One of the season's most hyped and anticipated series, The West Wing is by far its biggest disappointment. WITH: Rob Lowe (Sam Seaborn), Allison Janney (C. J. Gregg) and Martin Sheen (President Josiah Bartlet).

Kobe Bryant

February 27, 1996

kobebryant.gifA High School Star Ponders His Future
Much of the anticipation was for a slender, 6-foot-6-inch, 17-year-old senior for Lower Merion, Kobe Bryant. Bryant is the highest scorer in the history of southeastern Pennsylvania preps, recently passing Overbrook's Wilt Chamberlain, among others; a player whose coach said could become the next Michael Jordan, and one who, the school's athletic director said, has attracted as many pro scouts to his games as college scouts.
* * *
Will he become the next Kevin Garnett? Last season Garnett, a 6-11 forward, went directly from Farragut High School in Chicago to the Minnesota Timberwolves of the National Basketball Association, one of only a handful of players to make such a leap over the past 20 years....Garnett failed to make the requisite 700 score on the Scholastic Assessment Test and would have been forced to sit out a year if he had decided to go to college. That, he said, was the reason he turned pro. And now, at age 19, and after some uneasy early going, he is averaging 23 minutes a game and appears to be adjusting nicely in the pros.

Keep your suggestions coming. Read the first six installments here:
The First Time News Was Fit To Print, I
The First Time News Was Fit To Print, II
The First Time News Was Fit To Print, III
The First Time News Was Fit To Print, IV
The First Time News Was Fit To Print, V
The First Time News Was Fit To Print, VI

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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iStock
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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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