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The First Time News Was Fit To Print, IX

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More old news from the Times archives. As always, we've found people, places and things with first mentions worth mentioning.

Hedge Fund

November 26, 1966
A Mutual Fund That Is Unusual
The Hubshman Fund, described as the first mutual fund offered to the public that will employ both hedging and leveraging principles, is scheduled to begin operating today.
* * * * *
The Hubshman Fund, with headquarters at 350 Park Avenue, is modeled after one of Wall Street's little known but profitable vehicles for private investors "“ the hedge fund.

These hedge funds are limited partnerships, as contrasted to mutual funds that are open to the public. Typical partners of hedge funds include sophisticated businessmen and families of wealth who are attracted by the principle of making money in the stock market by taking both long and short positions.

John Updike

March 2, 1958

The Magic World Of Words
updike.jpg What influences a child's sensitivity to language, to choice of words, to color, to tempo, to construction? There may be innate differences in this sphere just as there are in music and visual art. Whether for biological or cultural reasons, girls and women, generally, are more skillful "“ and certainly more prodigal "“ with words than are boys and men. Allowing for individual differences, though, what can parents do to nurture, or at least not to destroy, the young child's gift for language?

We took this question up with...John Updike, who to our mind is one of the most skillful and versatile young artists we've read. As for specifics, Mr. Updike said: "When children are picking up words with rapidity, between two and three, say, tell them the true word for something, even if it is fairly abstruse and long. A long correct word is exciting to a child. Makes them laugh; my daughter never says rhinoceros without laughing. Also around this time, puns are popular. A child sees the humor of nonsense."

Still to come: Silicon Valley, White Collar Crime, Web 2.0, Big John Studd and more.

Silicon Valley

January 16, 1975

New Markets Are Sought For Miniaturized Computers
pirates-of-silicon-valley.jpgThe United States electronic industry has developed circuitry so miniaturized that it is pushing to install many computer functions in such things as automobiles, gasoline pumps, traffic signals and supermarket cash registers. This development is expected, within a few years, to give computer technology more impact on daily life than it has today, when computer circuitry in consumer products is limited to pocket calculators, digital watches and some cameras.
* * * * *
The buildings of Intel were put up on a former citrus orchard. Santa Clara south of San Francisco Bay next to San Jose, is in the heart of what those in the electronics industry call "Silicon Valley" because so many makers of semiconductors are here.

White Collar Crime

December 28, 1939
Dr. Sutherland Says The Cost Of Duplicity In High Places Exceeds Burglary Losses
"White-collar criminality" was sharply attacked by the retiring president of the American Sociological Society, Dr. Edwin H. Sutherland of Indiana University, in an address tonight which discarded accepted conceptions and explanations of crime.

Speaking at a joint session of that society...Dr. Sutherland described present-day white collar criminals as "more suave and deceptive" than last century's "robber barons" and asserted that "in many periods more important crime news may be found on the financial pages of newspapers than on the front pages."

Energizer Bunny

October 23, 1989
Amid TV's Ad Clutter, A Rabbit Runs Wild
energizer.jpgRight from the start, the new commercial for Eveready's Energizer batteries does not look like the run-of-the-mill television ad. The star of the whimsical campaign is a bright pink toy bunny wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses and blue thongs. Banging a big bass drum as it struts around the set, the mechanical rabbit suddenly runs amok and marches out of the sound studio's doors.

But unsuspecting viewers watching when the spot made its debut last week were in for an even bigger surprise. Halfway through what appears to be a coffee commercial that shows two women quietly chatting, the runaway rabbit pops up and creates havoc as it tramps across the table.

Then, just when it seems safe to go back to ignoring commercials, the Energizer bunny charges through the laboratory setting of a spot for a nasal spray. Startled viewers were left wondering when the marauding rabbit would turn up next.

Web 2.0

August 14, 2000

As Innovation Lags Behind And The Mainstream Moves In, Net Entrepreneurs Look For Ways Out
"We're burned out," Ms. Harmel said, speaking of Net entrepreneurs of a certain level of experience and fatigue. "Some of us are tired and rich. Some of us are tired and not rich. But we're all tired."

Data on this topic are scarce, but anecdotal evidence suggests that a changing of the guard is under way in the Internet industry, as the early proponents of the Web are stepping aside for the mainstream business people who have migrated to the new medium. Such a cultural shift was to be expected, given how the Web itself has become a mainstream phenomenon. But analysts say the executive shift could have broad implications for e-commerce.

"Call this Web 2.0," said Clay Shirky, a partner at Accelerator Group, a consulting firm that works with Web start-ups, who has worked in the Internet industry since 1993. "This has been going on slowly, and now people are realizing the landscape has changed without us having caught onto it."

Post-it Notes

August 30, 1981

Some Practical Gadgets To Keep In The Bag
post-it.jpg Post-It Notes are another member of this family. In this case, however, the adhesive is to be found in a narrow stripe along one edge of the back of pieces of note paper. The notes, available in various size sheets, come in the form of handy pads. Merely jot a note to yourself or someone else, lift the note from the pad and touch it to the wall, door, film box, photo paper box, or other surface. The note will stick to almost any surface and can be removed without doing harm to painted walls or any other delicate finishes.

Big John Studd

December 22, 1983
Fitness Offerings
studd.jpgEarlier this month President Reagan gave Parade Magazine, the Sunday newspaper supplement, an exclusive story on how he keeps fit. Included in the article over the President's byline was an exhortation to Americans to follow his example and take up, among other exercises, weight lifting.

So far, according to the White House press office, there "hasn't been a large response." But among the early respondents were several people apparently seeking indirect White House endorsement of their exercise products.

Spalding, the company that gave the nation the high-bounce pink rubber ball sometimes called the Spaldeen, has offered the President the free use of Power Rings, a weight-lifting device that retails for $109. And Big John Studd, a professional wrestler who says he is the only man to have body-slammed Andre the Great, has asked the Reagan re-election committee to give the President his own exercise contraption, which is a bicycle handlebar affixed to a wagon wheel.

Here are some of the topics featured in previous installments of this series:

"¢ Volume I: The Simpsons, Barack Obama, iPod and Microsoft
"¢ Volume II: Donald Trump, Starbucks, Global Warming and Wikipedia
"¢ Volume III: JFK, The Smurfs, the Internet
"¢ Volume IV: Larry David, Ulysses S. Grant, VCRs
"¢ Volume V: Walkman, Osama bin Laden, Pearl Jam
"¢ Volume VI: Times Square, Marijuana, Googling
"¢ Volume VII: Kobe Bryant, Apartheid, Gatorade
"¢ Volume VIII: Bob Dylan, Barbie, War on Terror

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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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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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