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The First Time News Was Fit To Print, XI

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Every Monday, we journey into the archives of The New York Times, searching for first mentions worth mentioning. This week's edition includes RFK, the Olsen Twins and Digg.

Robert F. Kennedy

January 8, 1950

Miss Ethel Skakel Becomes Engaged
RFKWedding3.jpgMr. and Mrs. George Skakel have announced the engagement of their daughter, Ethel, to Robert Francis Kennedy, son of Joseph P. Kennedy, former U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James, and Mrs. Kennedy of Hyannis, Mass.; New York and West Palm Beach, Fla., formerly of Boston. A June wedding is planned.
* * * * *
Her fiancé, who was graduated from the Milton (Mass.) Academy, is a member of the class of '48 of Harvard University, where he belonged to the Spee and Varsity Cubs and the Hasty Pudding Institute of 1770. He was captain of the freshman football team there and on the varsity squad for three years.*

A veteran of three years of wartime Navy service, Mr. Kennedy is a student at the University of Virginia Law School. The prospective bridegroom is a brother of Representative John F. Kennedy and the late Lady Kathleen Hartington.

*This wasn't actually true. In a March 1957 profile, RFK's athletic resume was re-stated: "Mr. Kennedy is an active sportsman. He plays tennis, golfs in the 80's and skis. He played end on the Harvard football team for two years. Now a favorite week-end diversion is 'touch' football."

Zip Codes

November 29, 1962

New Mail Codes Will Aid Sorters
use-zip-code.jpgThe Post Office Department will add a five-digit number to everyone's address after July 1. The new number will be called the zip code.

Postmaster General J. Edward Day, who announced the plan today, said the digit code would help postal clerks pinpoint the destination of mail as it was sorted. He said this could speed delivery by as much as 24 hours.

To help publicize the plan, the department has created a cartoon character named Mr. Zip. "Zip" stands for Zone Improvement Plan.
* * * * *
Mr. Day he did not expect the new system to bring about any reduction in the postal payroll or in postal rates. The volume of mail increases every year and, in any case, most postal employees are letter carriers.

"I don't think we'll ever get to the point where a clanking robot brings mail to your door."

Keep reading for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, David Bowie, product placement, Digg and the Olsen Twins.

Mary Kate & Ashley Olsen

June 7, 1992

Q-Ratings: The Popularity Contest Of The Stars
olsen.jpg How do you figure out a Q-rating? Take the percentage of people surveyed who describe a show or performer as "one of my favorites," then divide by the percentage who recognize the name in the first place. Drop the decimal point. For instance, a show that is called a favorite by everyone who has heard of it would have a rating of 100.

Here are Q-ratings of some of America's current favorites, according to the most recent surveys available. In cases of ties, shows and performers are listed alphabetically.

1. Jaleel White (49)
2. Bill Cosby (45)
3. Estelle Getty (42)
4. Whoopi Goldberg (42)
5. Michael Jordan (42)
6. Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen (twins) (42)
7. Robin Williams (42)
8. Kevin Costner (40)
9. Ted Danson (40)
10. Carroll O'Connor (39)

Digg

January 11, 2006

In A Flash, Camera Dealers Feel The Web's Wrath
digg-logo.jpg The market for digital camera gear, it turns out, happens to have a lot of overlap with the technology-minded, Web-logging set, whose vengeance is served without much pause. 'So many people have had the same problem before,' said Danny Start, a computer systems analyst in Birmingham, England...'This time, we all heard about it and thought we'd do something about it.'

On Nov. 29, Thomas Hawk posted a 2,333-word complaint about Price Rite Photo on his Web site, describing hard sales tactics and threats. By 2 a.m. the next day, this dispute over a $3,000 camera was an enormously popular topic of discussion online, casting Mr. Hawk in the timeless role of the outraged underdog.
* * * * *
After reading Mr. Hawk's complaints, Yahoo! Shopping blocked Price Rite from its service, according to Sabrina Crider, a spokeswoman for the company. Mr. Hawk quickly declared victory, and online discussion forums with names like Digg filed the story under headlines like "Digg Users Take Revenge at Bad Online Store."

David Bowie

July 11, 1971

Bowie, Bolan, Heron "“ Superstars?
davidbowie.jpgMind and music are a powerful team, too. David Bowie is the most intellectually brilliant man yet to choose the long-playing album as his medium of expression. His best album is Man of Words/Man of Music* (Mercury). It is over a year old and not easy to find in record stores, but it is well worth special-ordering or sending to England for or borrowing from a friend. It is worth any three records now on the charts.

*This album was re-released in the United States as Space Oddity in 1972.

War On Drugs

June 14, 1919

Health Commissioner Copeland Defends His War On Drugs
According to a statement given out yesterday by the Bureau of Narcotic Research, representing in its membership a number of philanthropists and medical men interested in the drug problem...the question that is interesting the doctors is how far the municipal and State authorities are seeking to interfere with the private practitioner's efforts in curing drug addicts. Any amendments to the sanitary code as have been proposed that will aim to treat as a single class the thousands of persons addicted to the use of narcotics will be vigorously resisted by the doctors, says the bureau's statement.

It also states that, according to figures compiled by the Police Department, there are at present some 250,000 addicts in New York. Of this number only about 15 percent are of the criminal or underworld classes, it says, and 212,500 of the total are making every effort to be cured.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

June 4, 1971

Biggest Name in NBA: Jabbar
kareemBucks.jpg For Oscar Robertson, it will be a chance to "listen and learn"; for Lew Alcindor, a "return to the fountainhead."

These were the terms in which the two basketball stars today described their upcoming tour of six African countries on behalf of the state department.
* * * * *
Twice during the short news conference Alcindor asked to be called by his Muslim name, Kareem Abdul Jabbar.

"I first used the name in 1969," he said, "but now that I am going overseas to represent my country, I would appreciate that courtesy."....Alcindor said he didn't expect the [Milwaukee] Bucks to change his name in their advertising "because I've become famous with it. I do expect people to use my Islamic name when they're talking to me."

Product Placement (in movies/TV)

November 15, 1982

Plugging Products In Movies As An Applied Art
The script for Rocky III is amended to include a Wheaties scene, in which Rocky advises his young son to eat the "breakfast of champions" if he wants to grow up big and strong. In North Dallas 40, a scene involving salad dressing is inserted so that the actors can conspicuously use Bertolli Olive Oil. In Honeysuckle Rose, the beer bottles are carefully arranged so that a particular beer is by Willie Nelson's side when he's relaxed and happy. As for the troublemakers, they drink another brand.

tv_friends.gifThese touches are the handiwork of an up-and-coming entrepreneur called the product placer, whose business it is to make sure that moviemakers and manufacturers enjoy a close, symbiotic relationship. In the days when Hollywood cared more for elegance, this might not have been possible "“ brand-name products on screen would have seemed hopelessly declasse. Even in recent years, the use of merchandise in movies was fairly random. But nowadays it's becoming an organized process, and the brand-name products that turn up as movie props are less and less likely to have landed there by accident.

[Image of mental_floss on Friends courtesy of The Trivia Hall of Fame. "Actor David Arquette became a fan, and a copy ended up in Courtney Cox-Arquette's hands on the set."]

Previously on The First Time News Was Fit To Print:
"¢ Volume I: Barack Obama, Jon Stewart and the iPod
"¢ Volume II: Hillary Clinton, Starbucks, McDonald's
"¢ 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

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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Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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