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The First Time News Was Fit To Print: From The Archives

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Every Monday, we venture into the archives of The New York Times to find the first time the paper covered various topics. This week, in a moment of weakness/laziness, we're re-running eight first mentions from our own archives. If you have a suggestion for next week, leave us a comment.

Lee Harvey Oswald

November 3, 1959

oswald.jpgAmerican Awaits Soviet Word
Lee Harvey Oswald shut himself in his hotel room today to await a decision on his request for Soviet citizenship. Mr. Oswald, a former Marine from Fort Worth, Texas, turned in his American passport to the United States Embassy here [in Moscow] last week-end. "I am awaiting a reply from the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet on my application for citizenship and have nothing to say meanwhile," he said over the telephone.

Keep reading for Books on Tape, Yoko Ono, Aerosmith, Bill Maher, Don Mattingly and more.

Books on Tape

February 20, 1977

cassette.jpgCatching Up With the Classics
Want to catch up on your reading while driving cross-country? Or dip into the classics while sunning with eyes closed on a secluded Caribbean beach? A California outfit called Books on Tape makes it happen.

Described as the "thinking man's answer to CB radio," Books on Tape was conceived in Los Angeles a few years back to aid long-haul commuters avoid "cerebral atrophy" occasioned by long traffic tie-ups on freeways.
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Clients are able to rent the cassettes at fees ranging from $6.50 to $7.50 for a complete work, based on a one-month rental period, plus $1.75 for postage and handling. If one had to buy the tapes, the purchase price would be somewhere around $50.

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.
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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."]

Taxicab

April 9, 1899

NY1890s.jpgThe Taxicabs
One taxicab company, in spite of all the popular clamor for cheaper fares, has raised its rates, so that a ride of two miles, if the meter works properly and the chauffeur is honest, will cost $1.30. We fear it will turn out to be like advertised hotel rates, $1.30 "and up." The chauffeur's fee is still to be considered.
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It would be better for the companies to practice economies; to secure honest chauffeurs, to guard against taximeter errors; than to raise the rate of fares. We have all been dreaming of the establishment of a cheap cab system. We still have nothing cheaper than a livery stable horse coupe.

Aerosmith

April 2, 1973

aerosmith.jpgKinks Concert Blends Artistry and Appeal
The Kinks have been a leading rock "˜n roll band for nearly 10 years now, and their appearance Friday night at the Fordham University gymnasium in the Bronx made it clear that they are still one of the finest groups around....Aerosmith, the opening act, played loud, derivative rock, distinguished only by Steve Tyler's fawning imitation of Mick Jagger.

Exxon

September 21, 1971

McCann to Promote Humble's Exxon Gas in 6 Cities
exxon1972.jpgMcCann-Erickson will soon be promoting Exxon gasoline in six cities. Exxon? Exxon?

Exxon is a new brand name that will be tested by the Humble Oil and Refining Company to find out how it is accepted by consumers.

This is an important move for Humble, the major domestic arm of Standard Oil (New Jersey), because it has long been legally prevented from using Esso, its best known brand name, in 29 of the 47 states it markets in. So it uses Humble in one state and Enco in 28.

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.

Don Mattingly

September 2, 1980

Yankee Hopefuls Face Crossroad At Greensboro
mattingly1.jpgDon Mattingly, a 19-year-old outfielder from Evansville, Ind., hit in the vicinity of .370. He has a knack for turning fastballs into line drives. Mattingly's fielding has been questionable, but he improved after working with Ken Berry, the two-time Gold Glove winner who is now a Hornet coach.
* * * * *
Kim Mattingly, 17, left high school to marry Don"¦.Being married to a minor league player is lonely, Kim says. There are so many bus trips and so many days with nothing to do. Some of the wives look forward to the games as much as the players do. Kim Mattingly likes to get out and walk around the stadium and talk to fans and the wives and girlfriends of other players. She says she realizes that hers is strictly a supporting role to her husband. "When he's happy, I'm happy," she says. "When he goes 0 for 8, then he gets grumpy and he's grumpy to me too."

Our Archives

"¢ Volume I: Barack Obama, Microsoft, 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: Randy Moss, Regis Philbin, Valentine's Day
"¢ Volume XXVI: Yoko Ono, Universal Health Care, Tom Coughlin
"¢ Volume XXVII: The U.S. Presidential Candidates
"¢ Volume XXVIII: Superdelegates, HD DVD, Spud Webb
"¢ Volume XXIX: Academy Awards Edition
"¢ Volume XXX: National Review, Wayne Gretzky, Harry Truman
"¢ November 3, 2007: Appearance on NPR Weekend Edition Saturday

T.jpgWant to play along at home? Get complete access to the The New York Times archives by becoming 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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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