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The First Time News Was Fit To Print, XXVI

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In case you missed our first twenty-five volumes or the greatest hits edition, let me explain. Every Monday, we go into the archives of The New York Times to find the first time The Paper of Record covered selected topics. If you have a suggestion for next week, leave us a comment.

Yoko Ono

November 25, 1961

Far-Out Music Is Played at Carnegie
yoko.jpgOne thing you can surely say about today's new music: the farther out it gets, the harder it is to describe. It wasn't always so; thirty years ago inner anatomical detail and structural exactitude were the rage. But now "“

Here are some of the things that happened in almost total darkness at Carnegie Recital Hall late yesterday afternoon, all in the name of music:

Against a taped background of mumbled words and wild laughter a girl spoke earnestly about peeling a grapefruit, squeezing lemons and counting the hairs on a dead child. Musicians in the corner made their instruments go squeep and squak.
* * * * *
The occasion was a concert of works by Yoko Ono, and the hall was packed. The works were titled, respectively, "A Grapefruit in the World of Park," "Piece for Strawberries and Violin" and "AOS"“To David Tudor."

Whether or not time will prove Miss Ono a master of musical expressiveness, there can be no denying her skill at concocting titles. Especially since neither strawberries nor violin were anywhere in evidence.

[This was actually Yoko's second appearance. She was briefly mentioned the previous day in an article titled "Musical Notes."]

Universal Health Care

May 1, 1949

Truman's Health Plan Compared With British
hospital_sign.jpg There are fundamental differences between the popular national health service of Great Britain and the compulsory health insurance program of President Truman. However, the objectives are virtually identical. Many details are similar. And it is easy to get into an argument over whether either constitutes "socialized medicine."
* * * * *
There are important differences as well in the historical background for a national health system. For thirty-six years before the British National Health Service became operative, about half of the population had been covered under a national insurance system confined to low-income individuals.

As a consequence, the British Medical Association was psychologically prepared for universal health care when it was first made official Government policy in 1944 by the Conservative Government....In contrast, the American Medical Association is raising a $1,500,000 fund to fight adoption of compulsory health insurance in this country.

Keep reading for Tom Coughlin, Super Tuesday and Tabitha Soren...

Tom Coughlin

May 8, 1966

Syracuse Football Varsity Trounces Alumni by 32-7
tom-coughlin.jpg The Syracuse varsity football team trounced an alumni squad today, 32-7. Jim Del Gaizo passed for two touchdowns and Larry Csonka and Tom Coughlin plunged over for scores.

[This is Tom's first flirtation with the New York media, unless he is the same Tom Coughlin who dominated the junior swimming scene in the mid-1950s.]

Super Tuesday

May 9, 1976

The Jackson Campaign: An Exercise in How to Undo It
vote-button.jpg In the political handicappers' early line, Senator Harry M. Jackson of Washington, though hardly an odds-on favorite, was almost a sure thing to make it through all the primaries and show up at the finish line, the July 12th Democratic convention in New York. He was a rock, colorless but stubborn and well-financed.

When the end came recently with his withdrawal from "active pursuit" of the nomination, Scoop Jackson was still a rock. He sank fast in the unpredictable political waters of 1976 and scarcely left a ripple.
* * * * *
The Jackson people had not paid a lot of attention to Jimmy Carter, even after others began doing so when he won in early caucuses, such as the one in Iowa. When he won New Hampshire, they still didn't worry too much. They would get him in Massachusetts and presumably, George Wallace would destroy him in the South. They did, but Governor Wallace didn't.

There was, after all, always the big-state strategy. New York, Scoop Jackson's trump card, would open up a string of victories, in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Michigan, and finally, on super-Tuesday, June 8, in California, Ohio and New Jersey.

Tabitha Soren

December 20, 1991

TV Weekend: Making the Best of Slim Pickings
tabitha-soren.jpgTHE YEAR IN ROCK: 1991 (MTV): The predictable blitz of fleeting images, overseen by the hosts Tabitha Soren and Kurt Loder, is used to catalogue a year that, on the whole, was troubling. With the recession trickling down to the music industry, sales of recordings and concert tickets were off considerably, leaving a good many top names playing before embarrassingly empty halls and stadiums. MTV was clearly less impressed than George Bush with the Persian Gulf War, obviously preferring the "Give Peace a Chance" protesters. Performers from Paula Abdul to Rick James got entangled in unseemly legal situations. But, gamely optimistic, MTV also looks at some brighter sides. Hot new artists: Nirvana, Marky Mark, Seal, Color Me Badd, Naughty by Nature. Breakthroughs: Metallica, the Black Crowes, Extreme, Chris Isaak. Most encouraging pop-culture development: more film releases by black film makers than in the previous five years combined. Short on analysis, this MTV image collection, punctuated with brief blasts of music, is almost dizzyingly comprehensive.

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
"¢ Volume XVIII: Sports Edition
"¢ Volume XIX: TV Edition
"¢ Volume XX: Wrestlemania, Phil Knight, My Two Dads
"¢ Volume XXI: Books on Tape, Condoleezza Rice, Tina Fey
"¢ End of 2007: Greatest Hits
"¢ Volume XXII: John McCain, American Gladiators, Dianetics
"¢ Volume XXIII: Barbara Bush, Sports Illustrated, The Daily Show
"¢ Volume XXIV: "I Have A Dream" speech, Mitt Romney, Game Boy
"¢ Volume XXV: 'Politics of Fear,' Regis Philbin, Randy Moss
"¢ November 3, 2007: Appearance on NPR Weekend Edition Saturday

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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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