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The First Time News Was Fit To Print, XIV

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Every Monday, mental_floss ventures into the archives of The New York Times to find first mentions worth mentioning. If you have a suggestion for next week's installment, leave us a comment.

Digital Watch

July 21, 1973

A Watch That Takes the Hard Time Out of Telling Time
pulsar1.jpgNow there's a new toy for the man with a collection of watches. The digital watch, which is operated by a sort of tiny computer, takes all the guess work out of time reading by flashing the hours and minutes in numerals on its face.
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Sales are brisk although the Pulsar is not a thing of beauty compared to many good watches. The watch itself is thick, to accommodate its computer and battery, and weighs about four ounces with its metal strap. Until its "command" button is pressed, it shows nothing but a blank, dark-red face and looks like a dead television screen. But that, presumably, is the fun of owning one. Ask the Pulsar wearer what time it is, and without saying a word, he presses the button and you know it's 9:42.

Prozac

March 20, 1986

prozac-molecule.jpgDow Down by 1.92 in Slow Trading
Eli Lilly rose 7 7/8, to 67 1/8, on volume of 2.1 million shares. The gain was attributed to reports that its new anti-depression drug, Prozac, might also be useful as a weight-loss formula.

Keep reading for The Legend of Zelda, Super Bowl commercials, George Costanza and The Hoff.

The Legend of Zelda

December 21, 1989

The Games Played for Nintendo's Sales
zelda.jpg It takes work to avoid Nintendo. There are Nintendo television shows, a cereal and a magazine, as well as T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, pins, pajamas, beach towels and school lunch boxes.

Once Nintendo has snared a consumer, Mr. Main makes sure not to let go. Nintendo employees use hand-held computers at toy stores to monitor sales. Names of Nintendo Power magazine subscribers are added to a four-million-name data base. As many as 120 ''game counselors'' answer telephone calls from puzzled players of Legend of Zelda or Super Mario Brothers 2. All of the information is searched for clues to marketing decisions: what products to make and how many to make of them. What does a fickle consumer, aged 8 to 15, want now?

George Costanza

May 24, 1992

Here's One Loser People Really Look Up To
costanza.jpg George Costanza is situation comedy's Job, for whom life is one continuous push into a steaming bowl of soup. He is so incompetent he can't move cars from one side of the street to the other without a crash. His social acumen is such that he wears a wedding band to entice single women. His paranormal abilities foretold only that he would be bald.

George may be a loser, but Seinfeld is not. Last week, NBC announced that the quirky sitcom will keep its Wednesday slot (at 9 P.M.) on the fall schedule.
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George is not merely a sitcom loser or simply a quantum leap beyond other TV unfortunates like Barney Fife of The Andy Griffith Show, Mel Cooley of The Dick Van Dyke Show or Cliff Clavin of Cheers. He is the shlimazl who stirs the Seinfeld drink, the downtrodden super neurotic who suffers the worst misfortunes of the show's four single, fretful characters.

Super Bowl Commercial

January 15, 1967

A Super 60 Seconds Costs $85,000
AFL-NFL.jpg The Columbia Broadcasting System has sold its 18 minutes of Super Bowl commercials at a rate of $85,000 a minute to its advertisers. This is an increase of $15,000 from what the sponsors paid to CBS during the network's television of the National Football League's regular season games.

The National Broadcasting Company, which televised the American Football League's season games, has sold its 18 minutes at a $70,000-a-minute rate.
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Both networks paid $1-million each as their share of the dual color telecast of today's clash in the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Pop-up Ads

May 7, 1998

The American Way of Spam
Pop_up.jpg The term spam, taken from the name of the spiced lunch meat relentlessly doled out in Army rations, morphed into an epithet when Internet denizens adopted it to refer to unsolicited promotional messages. So negative is the connotation that Hormel Foods, which holds the trademark for Spam, sent a cease-and-desist letter to one publicity-minded spammer who held a press conference surrounded by cans of the pink product.
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Spammers are fond of pointing out that AOL itself bombards users with infuriating pop-up advertisements touting such offers as ''easy 1-step photo scanning'' every time they log on. And as mainstream advertisers and nonprofit and political organizations contemplate using bulk E-mail as a way to get their messages out, just what qualifies as spam becomes increasingly murky. The Democratic Party in California, for instance, plans to send E-mail to thousands of voters with a slate of endorsements and information on the party's candidates this year.

"It's hard to get a fixed definition of spam," Ms. Mulligan said. "You know it when you see it."

David Hasselhoff

March 24, 1979

Stars of the Soap Operas Playing the Mall Circuit
hasselhoff.jpg The fans surged against restraining chains and hung over the balcony in the split-level, enclosed shopping center, to get a glimpse of their favorites. Most of them were women, including many in their 20s and 30s who had brought their babies along in strollers. There were also a number of women in wheelchairs and working women who had called in sick for the day.
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"Soaps Alive!" was founded two years ago by Harriet Epstein, a 35-year-old soap opera addict and mother of two from Paramus, NJ. Since then, she said, she has provided soap opera stars for appearances at 101 malls.
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Among the stars who have taken part in "Soaps Alive!" programs are Jed Allan of Days of Our Lives, Gerald Anthony of One Life to Live, David Hasselhoff of The Young and the Restless...and Victoria Wyndham of Another World.

Our Archives

"¢ Volume I: Barack Obama, Jon Stewart, 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
"¢ Volume XI: RFK, the Olsen Twins, Digg
"¢ Volume XII: Jerry Seinfeld, Lee Harvey Oswald, Don Mattingly
"¢ Volume XIII: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Taxicab, Hippies
"¢ November 3, 2007: Appearance on NPR Weekend Edition Saturday

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

501069-OpeningCeremony2.jpg

Opening Ceremony

To this:

501069-OpeningCeremony3.jpg

Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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