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9 Times They Probably Should Have Stopped The Presses

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Parade magazine recently gave readers a taste of the now-lost time when news traveled slowly and events often overtook information. Staring from the cover of the tabloid's Jan. 6 issue, a defiant Benazir Bhutto declared, "I am what the terrorists most fear."

Her appearance was a surprise to everyone but "the terrorists," who had murdered the Pakistani politician 10 days earlier and answered unequivocally the question Parade's headline asked its readers: "Is Benazir Bhutto America's Best Hope Against al-Qaeda?"

Makes you long for the much-maligned 24-hour news cycle.

According to Publisher Randy Siegel, Parade had put the Bhutto issue to bed a full six days before her Dec. 27 assassination. The 400-plus newspapers that deliver Parade to 32 million readers all elected to include the magazine with its painfully outdated cover story.

"Every week it costs several million dollars to print and distribute Parade," Siegel told NPR. But he went on to explain that money was not the reason he chose to let the issue stand. "We believe that what Benazir Bhutto had to say should be heard and this story deserved to be told."

Perhaps Parade columnist/super genius Marilyn vos Savant will calculate for us the odds of a publication going to press with a seriously out-of-date story, of betting wrong against a deadline, or just plain blowing it when it comes to life and death. As of our deadline, here are seven more examples of ill-timed news.

2006 "“ Good News, Bad News

coal-miners-papers.jpgInsult was added to tragedy after a blast trapped 13 coal miners underground in Sago, West Virginia. One miner was found dead after the cave-in on the morning of Monday, Jan. 2. But on Tuesday night news spread that the remaining 12 miners had been found alive. West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin called it a miracle, families celebrated, and newspapers around the country published sensitive, salt-of-the-earth stories about the soon-to-be-rescued miners.


Three hours later, the celebrating relatives were informed that 11 of the 12 lost miners actually were dead. A witness said one relative lunged for an official and had to be wrestled to the ground.


The mine owner, International Coal Group (ICG), said it knew within 20 minutes that initial reports were incorrect, but waited until it had all the facts before issuing a clarification. ICG President Ben Hatfield blamed the confusion on "stray cell phone conversations." People overhearing bits of phone calls spread the incorrect information, he explained.

1982 "“ Requiem for Sgt. Fish

Actor Abe Vigoda was just 54 when he landed the role of elderly cop Sgt. Fish on the "˜70s hit TV show Barney Miller. Vigoda had played a recurring role on the creepy soap opera Dark Shadows in the 1960s, and appeared in the first two Godfather films. Perhaps because he was still together with his wife, or wasn't one of the 100 Sexiest Men Alive, in 1982 People magazine referred to him as "the late Abe Vigoda." It became a running joke -- Vigoda even posed for a photograph sitting in a coffin, holding a copy of the magazine. A quick check of the "Abe Vigoda Status" website this week reassures us that the actor is alive.

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2007 "“ Oh Wilbur!

barbaro.jpgWant the facts? Opinion? Truth? Or none of the above? Parade's "Personality Parade" on Feb. 11, 2007, included a question about the health of Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, who had shattered a leg at the Preakness. The horse underwent surgery, and "since then, his comfort has improved, and he's stable," "Personality Parade" assured the letter writer. After the issue went to press (curse those three-week deadlines!), Barbaro's health deteriorated, and the horse was euthanized on Jan. 29.

1998 "“ Hope Springs Eternal

bobhope1.jpgA boilerplate obit of seemingly immortal entertainer Bob Hope appeared on the Associated Press website, a week after Hope was feted for his 95th birthday. This led Rep. Bob Stump (R - Ariz.) to announce Hope's death on the floor of the House of Representatives, which was broadcast live on C-Span. Hope died July 27, 2003, at the age of 100. Stump had died on June 20.

1945 -- Vladimir Ivanovich, We Hardly Knew You

In the Soviet Union, Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky was a scientist's scientist. He "was rated an expert in geology, chemistry, biology, physics and astronomy," according to Time magazine. "In the vast perspective of the billions of years of geologic time, man has seemed to orthodox geologists a puny and perhaps temporary phenomenon," the magazine said. But after witnessing World War I, Vernadsky concluded that "modern man's brain, rivaling in power the geological forces of wind and water, is radically transforming nature."

Americans were introduced to Vernadsky's ideas in an article in American Scientist. The magazine went to press just before the scientist died.

1974 "“ Goodnight Chet

hunter-brinkley.jpgIn the 1960s, news anchor Chet Huntley was more famous than Forrest Sawyer and Stone Philips combined. Huntley and colleague David Brinkley were NBC's power news team, and their dinner-hour Huntley-Brinkley Report were stiff competition to CBS's Walter Cronkite.


In its March 24, 1974, Sunday magazine, the Chicago Tribune published a warts-and-all profile of the newsman, who had retired from television in 1970. The article described Huntley's battles with conservationists over his plans for a resort in his native Montana. "In the past three years, Huntley has gone from being a national hero to something of a local villain," the article declared.

"Chet Huntley the anchorman has become Chet Huntley the businessman; worse, a celebrity businessman," the article sniffed. "And no one in this country is going to lose any sleep over knocking a big-shot mercenary."

Five days before "Chet Huntley in Hot Water" appeared, Huntley, who was known to be ill, had died of lung cancer.

Like Parade's Benazir Bhutto story, the Huntley piece had gone to press almost three weeks earlier. And in an unsurprising foreshadowing, Editor John Fink defended the decision to stick by the article. The $100,000 in production fees and advertising had nothing to do with the decision, he told Time. "It was basically a story on Huntley and his life, and it seemed to me that if he should die before publication, it could be something of a final statement."

1948 "“ Dewey Defeats Truman

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We couldn't leave out the Mother of All Newspaper Goofs. President Harry S Truman was in a tight four-man race for reelection. His Democratic party was split and Gallup polls predicted a landslide for Republican Thomas E. Dewey's. On election night, Truman went to bed in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, believing he had lost the election. Overnight, though, Truman closed the gap, and at 10:14 a.m. Dewey conceded the election.

But it was too late for the Chicago Daily Tribune which, buoyed by the general belief that the Republican had the election in the bag, already had released an edition proclaiming "Dewey Defeats Truman." Once Truman's victory became apparent, the kerry.jpgnewspaper scrambled to retrieve as many copies as it could. That day, Truman's Washington-bound train was stopped in St. Louis, and the president was handed a copy of the Tribune. An Associated Press photographer snapped Truman's reaction.


In 2004, the New York Post did their best Daily Tribune impression by announcing the "exclusive" news that John Kerry had selected Dick Gephardt as his running mate. We'll save that story for our inevitable follow-up: "9 Times Newspaper Exclusives Were Blatantly Wrong."

David Holzel is a writer outside Washington, D.C., and co-creator of The Franklin Pierce Pages. He was assisted on this piece by a brilliant librarian who wishes to remain anonymous.

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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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