CLOSE
Original image

The First Time News Was Fit To Print, Volume X

Original image

Every Monday, mental_floss looks back at the first time The New York Times covered selected topics "“ selected by me, with help from our readers. Got an idea for next time? Help me out by leaving a comment.

Twister

September 13, 1967

twister3.jpgAdvertising: Liquor and Games

"Twister," by Milton Bradley, described as "a rather zany stocking-feet, body-action game for adults," is about to become involved in a nationwide tie-in with Seagram's 7-Crown, and you know what that is.

Into 15,000 liquor stores are going 48,900 pieces of display material that will include a "Quick As A Flash Party Book" and recipes based on the Twister theme.

This is reputed by the first tie-in between game maker and distiller. Next step "“ hotels on Park Place, Boardwalk and Skid Row!

E-mail

June 9, 1985

When Technology Outpaces Needs
1982computer.jpg Then there is electronic mail, that thoroughly modern offspring of a calcified postal service and a splintered Ma Bell. Currently, the companies promoting this service, nicknamed e-mail, are also offering such added services as a hookup of the subscriber's personal computer to the Telex network and a two-hour delivery of letter-quality documents to many parts of the country. They have all discovered that electronic mail alone cannot at this stage attract enough customers to stem the tide of red ink.
* * * * *
One of its alleged advantages is the so-called store and forward message. A user may send messages at any time and, unlike a telephone connection, e-mail does not require the recipient to be on the other end of the line. Then again, the old-fashioned postal service does not require that the recipient be there at the time of delivery either.

When all is said and done, electronic mail is no more efficient, in the vast majority of cases, than the telephone or the postal service it is supposed to replace. Nor does it have the flexibility to be able to deliver packages such as spare parts, in the manner of another innovation, the overnight express service pioneered by Federal Express.

Bruce Springsteen

January 21, 1973

Pop Folk Poets "“ A Band Of Loners
springsteen.jpgBruce Springsteen's debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ (Columbia), is full of urban experience, despite the country flavor of its musical idiom. Springsteen sometimes sounds like a curious cross between Van Morrison's upbeat fraternity-party enthusiasm and a bit of Rod Stewart's hoarse rock fervor. His music has an attractively driving infectiousness about it, particularly the fast numbers. But once again it is the words that distinguish him, for better or, perhaps, for worse.

Many more first mentions below, including Jonestown, George Steinbrenner, Clarence Thomas and It's a Wonderful Life.

Jonestown

November 19, 1978

jonestown.jpgCoast Congressman Believed Slain Investigating Commune In Guyana
Representative Leo J. Ryan, a California Democrat, was shot yesterday and is believed dead along with several companions in a remote area of Guyana, the State Department said last night.

The legislator had gone to Guyana accompanied by two aides and seven journalists, including an NBC television crew. He was investigating reports that members of a commune of the People's Temple, a religious cult established by a Californian named Jim Jones, were virtual prisoners.
* * * * *
The incident occurred when the Ryan party of 14 persons and the departing members of the commune, known as Jonestown after the sect's leader, attempted to take off for Georgetown. A tractor pulling a trailer appeared on the airstrip, and gunfire struck first one plane and then the second.

It's A Wonderful Life

November 5, 1945

wonderfullife.jpegStewart Due Back In 1st Liberty Film
The first role in a film for Col. James Stewart since his discharge from the Army Air Forces will be the lead in It's A Wonderful Life, the initial picture of Liberty Films, the new Frank Capra-William Wyler-Samuel Briskin production organization. The picture, which will be put into production on Feb. 1 for RKO release, will be based on "The Greatest Gift," a fantasy by Philip Van Doren Stern, about a man who expresses a wish that he had never been born. The story was bought by RKO at the suggestion of Cary Grant, who previously was to do the lead.

Jackie Robinson

October 29, 1939

jrobinson.jpgUCLA Triumphs Over Oregon
Two spectacular plays marked UCLA's 16-6 victory over Oregon before 40,000 in Memorial Coliseum today. The game knocked the Webfoots out of the undefeated group in the Pacific Coast Conference.

A 45-yard forward pass by Kenny Washington to Jackie Robinson, good for 66 yards, brought one touchdown, and Robinson broke the Oregon spirit with an 82-yard spring for the second Bruin tally.

George Steinbrenner

December 13, 1955

steinbrenner.jpgWildcats Dismiss Saban And Staff
The new broom swept clean today at Northwestern as Stu Holcomb, hired as athletic director three days ago, dismissed the head football coach, Lou Saban, and his entire staff
* * * * *
The 34-year-old Saban was let out along with the line coaches, Bud Svendsen and Nathan Johnson; the backfield coach, Al Pesek, and the end coach, George Steinbrenner. All were told their one-year contracts would not be renewed when they expire March 1.

January 4, 1973
(the first mention after buying the New York Yankees)

CBS Sells The Yankees For $10 Million
"We plan absentee ownership as far as running the Yankees is concerned," Steinbrenner said. "We're not going to pretend we're something we aren't. I'll stick to building ships."

Clarence Thomas

December 20, 1981

Can Black Colleges Survive?
clarencethomas.jpeg More than 25 years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision decreed the doctrine of "separate but equal" unconstitutional for elementary and secondary schools, black colleges remain separate "“ although they admit many white students. And they are seeking additional resources that will allow them to become truly equal. "Some people think that just because an institution is black it is inferior," says Clarence Thomas, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in the Department of Education. "It's not true, and black institutions are not illegal. The emphasis now is on better racial balance in the broader society."

Our Archives

"¢ Volume I: Barack Obama, Jon Stewart, iPod
"¢ Volume II: Hillary Clinton, Starbucks, Donald Trump
"¢ Volume III: JFK, Microwave Oven, the Internet
"¢ Volume IV: Larry David, Drudge Report, Digital Camera
"¢ Volume V: Walkman, Osama bin Laden, Iowa Caucuses
"¢ Volume VI: Times Square, Marijuana, Googling
"¢ Volume VII: Lance Armstrong, Aerosmith, Gatorade
"¢ Volume VIII: Bob Dylan, New York Jets, War on Terror
"¢ Volume IX: Hedge Fund, White Collar Crime, John Updike
"¢ Volume X: E-mail, Bruce Springsteen, George Steinbrenner
"¢ Volume XI: RFK, the Olsen Twins, Digg
"¢ Volume XII: Jerry Seinfeld, Lee Harvey Oswald, Don Mattingly
"¢ Volume XIII: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Taxicab, Hippies
"¢ Volume XIV: Digital Watch, Prozac, David Hasselhoff
"¢ Volume XV: George Clooney, Golden Gate Bridge, Toyota Prius
"¢ Volume XVI: Woody Allen, The Titanic, The Beastie Boys
"¢ Volume XVII: New York Edition
"¢ November 3, 2007: Appearance on NPR Weekend Edition Saturday

T.jpgDon't want to wait until next Monday for more first mentions? Get complete access to the The New York Times archives when you become an NYT subscriber.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
arrow
technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
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!

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

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
arrow
BIG QUESTIONS
SECTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES