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The First Time News Was Fit To Print, XV

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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.

George Clooney

July 1, 1990

Popular Films Are Feeding The Series Maw
clooney.jpg This season's spinoffs...are likely to have a certain familiarity about them, especially after the producers and the networks get through tinkering with the movie premises. In ABC's Baby Talk, for example, the father substitute, a cab driver played in the film by John Travolta, becomes a handyman, played by George Clooney. This gives him a reason to hang around the house "“ and pursue a romance "“ with the single mother, played by Kirstie Alley in the movie and Connie Sellecca in the series. Ms. Sellecca's character also gets a time-honored foil, another single mom who lives next door.

Bill Maher

February 28, 1982

A Rising Star At Pace
maher.jpgBill Maher, a student at Cornell University who has been described as an "observation comic" will entertain at 9 P.M. Friday in the Campus Center of Pace University in Pleasantville. Mr. Maher, who has performed at Catch-a-Rising-Star, a Manhattan nightclub that showcases new comedians, will be joined by two other emerging comedians, Adrienne Tolsch and J. J. Wall.

The evening is one of two yearly showcases at Pace initiated by Dr. Nicholas Catalano, director of performing arts, who is a part-time nightclub producer in New York...."Bill Maher is one of the best talents I've seen in years. He will be a major comedy star one day," he predicted.

Admission is $3, no reservations are required and beer and soft drinks are provided free.

Keep reading for the Golden Gate Bridge, Toyota Prius, Pervez Musharraf, The Tube Bar Tapes, Andrew Sullivan and Slashdot.

Golden Gate Bridge

December 28, 1922

Plan Golden Gate Bridge, To Be World's Largest Span
goldengate.jpgJ.B. Strauss, one of Chicago's best known civil engineers, made public today his plans for the erection of a bridge across the Golden Gate at San Francisco....Hitherto the bridge, the central span of which will be no less than 4,000 feet in length, has been looked upon as a wild flight of imagination, but recent advances in engineering and bridge design have been so great that the proposed construction is now a practical proposition.

Toyota Prius

November 5, 1995

Tokyo Auto Show Explores New Frontiers
prius.jpg Nissan has come up with the AA-X, a concept car that can change from a two-person sporty convertible into a four-person wagon. The two-part roof and the interior seating can be arranged in five combinations.

There is also new technology under the hood. Several manufacturers are pushing direct-injection gasoline engines, which promise to save fuel without sacrificing power. Toyota is showing a sedan of the future called Prius that should be able to get 70 miles per gallon. It has an energy management system that cuts fuel use by, among other techniques, regenerating braking energy and turning off the engine when the car is stopped.

Pervez Musharraf

October 20, 1998

Pakistani Premier Prevails In Clash With General
musharraf.jpgIn the welter of events unfolding here, one remarkable episode stands out: after the chief of the powerful Pakistani Army got in hot water for publicly criticizing the Prime Minister and proposing a stronger military role in making policy, it was the general who lost his job, not the Prime Minister.

There was no coup, although generals have ruled Pakistan for almost half of its 51-year history, and prime ministers have been dismissed in earlier clashes with the army.

Instead, Gen. Jehangir Karamat quietly resigned on Oct. 7, and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif immediately replaced him with another army commander, Pervez Musharraf. Last week, in a smooth transition, the new Chief of the Army Staff installed his own team of top officers.

Slashdot

February 1, 1999

logo.jpgAngry Internet Jousting Over Simulated Warfare
Computer programmers were busy spewing vitriol last week on Slashdot, an Internet site (www.slashdot.org) that proclaims itself as specializing in "news for nerds," over another Internet patent.

The patent, assigned to Rtime, of Seattle, covers certain aspects of playing three-dimensional games on the Internet. One aspect is a type of real-time data filtering that insures that only relevant data is distributed to participants. Another is a global time base that keeps different users synchronized within milliseconds.
* * * * *
Some of those weighing in on Slashdot wondered whether Rtime would try to extract a licensing fee each time someone tried to play private sessions of Doom or Quake or other three-dimensional games over the Internet.

Andrew Sullivan

April 20, 1983

Weinberger Drops Debate At Oxford
sullivan.jpg Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger has withdrawn from a debate on foreign policy at Oxford University after a warning from his British counterpart that his participation "might not be advisable" because of the approach of a general election.

Andrew Sullivan, president of the Oxford Union, which had hoped to stage the debate on May 27, said Mr. Weinberger telephoned last Friday to say he could not take part. The American had agreed some time ago to oppose E.P. Thompson, the leader of the British nuclear disarmament movement, on the motion: ''There is no moral difference between the world policies of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.''
* * * * *
Mr. Sullivan, the union president, is a 19-year-old student of history and French who describes himself as a supporter of the Government. He reported that Mr. Weinberger said on Friday that he thought a debate might be an "inappropriate" forum for a person in his position and that he did not want to seem to intervene in the British domestic political process with an election in the offing.

Update: Mr. Sullivan responds.

The Tube Bar Tapes

March 7, 1999

Giving Jerseyana A Voice
tubebartapes.jpgMr. Sceurman and Mr. Moran also scattered excerpts from "The Tube Bar Tapes" throughout the CD [Weird New Jersey's "The Sounds of Weirdness"]. These legendary prank-call recordings -- containing classics like "Can I speak to Al Coholic?" and "Is this the party to whom I am speaking?" (borrowed from Lily Tomlin) -- have circulated on bootleg tapes for years.

The location of the Tube Bar and the identities of the callers has been a mystery for two decades, but Weird New Jersey broke the story last May in its 10th issue. The calls were made in 1975 and 1976 to the Tube Bar in Jersey City, which was near the Journal Square train PATH station; the callers, Jim Davidson and John Elmo, now live in Florida, driven out of state not by irate tavern owners, but by high taxes.

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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