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The First Time News Was Fit To Print, XXXI

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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. If you have a suggestion for next week, leave us a comment.

Personal Computer

November 3, 1962

Pocket Computer May Replace Shopping List
first-computer.jpg Pocket-size computers may eliminate the housewife's weekly shopping list. Electronic communication would tell the store in advance what she needed. She would simply pick up the bundles.

This was envisioned today by Dr. John W. Mauchly, inventor of some of the original room-size computers [pictured], who has developed one the size of a suitcase and is now working on a pocket variety.
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Dr. Mauchly also predicted the day when a headwaiter could accurately forecast the cocktail a person wanted merely by matching the drinker's characteristics against preferences recorded in his own pocket computer...."There is no reason to suppose the average boy or girl cannot be a master of a personal computer," he said.

[Thanks to reader Mark for the suggestion.]


December 18, 1997

TV Cartoon's Flashes Send 700 Japanese Into Seizures
pokemon.jpgIn a bizarre illustration of the medical effects that television can have on viewers, more than 700 people were taken to hospitals after having been affected by flashing lights on an animated television show broadcast Tuesday night.

Some children vomited blood and others had seizures or lost consciousness. No one died, though, and no one is expected to. Producers of the cartoon, which is highly popular among kindergarten and primary school children, say that they were stumped over how an animation technique that has been used ''hundreds of times'' could cause such a widespread, violent reaction.
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Television Tokyo announced Wednesday that it will investigate the problem and said it would cancel other broadcasts of this episode of the program, which is nicknamed Pokemon.

[Thanks to reader C. Bukowski for the suggestion.]

Keep reading for Tucker Carlson, Vietnam War, Tracy McGrady and True Romance...

Tucker Carlson

September 13, 1998

Is There Room on a Republican Ticket for Another Bush?
tucker.jpg George Walker Bush was visiting his parents in the White House one day when the talk turned to religion, which is precisely the subject that some powerful factions in the Republican Party want their Presidential standard-bearer to talk about, forcefully, in 2000. But Bush, sitting one day recently on a sofa in the Governor's office at the Texas State Capitol, says he is "cautious about wearing my religion on my sleeve in the political process."
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In a generally laudatory piece about Bush's campaign for values in this summer's edition of City Journal, a publication of the conservative Manhattan Institute, Tucker Carlson suggested that Bush may in fact be the perfect spokesman for "the politics of virtue."

"Before his marriage, Bush had a reputation (from all accounts, deserved) as something of a wild man," Carlson wrote. "When he speaks, it is as a grizzled veteran of the sexual revolution. But he is a changed man."

Vietnam War

August 9, 1950

Vietnam War Rages Near Saigon; Rebels Harry Outlying Suburbs
vietnam.jpgHere, only twenty miles from the heart of the city, the suburbs of crowded, cosmopolitan Saigon merge into the embattled countryside of Vietnam. Continuous warfare reigns in this rural land of flat, green rice fields, vegetable gardens, palm groves and bamboo shaded villages.

The protagonists are ruthless raiding Vietminh bands, based in the vast near-by marshlands of the Plaine des Joncs, and the pacification forces of Vietnam and France.

Operating from an intricate network of block-houses, the heavily barricaded garrison centers of the French-Vietnam units wage an incessant struggle against Vietminh ambushes, road mining, night assaults, sabotage and terrorism. They manage to enforce an effective measure of peace and order.

[Thanks to reader Julia for the suggestion.]

Tracy McGrady

June 20, 1997

Payday Before the Draft
tracy-mcgrady.jpgTracy McGrady has never played a college game, but he is making a multimillion-dollar leap into the big leagues. The money is not coming from the National Basketball Association, but from Adidas.

Sonny Vaccaro, a director of sports marketing with Adidas, said McGrady, 18, signed a deal worth up to $2 million a year, depending on variables such as his performance and his team's performance in the National Basketball Association.

True Romance

September 10, 1993

Desperadoes, Young at Heart With Gun in Hand
true-romance.jpgTrue Romance, a vibrant, grisly, gleefully amoral road movie directed by Tony Scott and dominated by the machismo of Quentin Tarantino (who wrote this screenplay before he directed Reservoir Dogs), is sure to offend a good-sized segment of the moviegoing population. But those viewers are the ones who would never go to see a film starring Christian Slater in the first place, and who have no taste for the malevolently funny bad-boy posturing that is the very essence of True Romance.
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Also in True Romance, and squaring off for a monumental cool-dude showdown midway through the story, are Dennis Hopper as Clarence's father and Christopher Walken as a debonair mafioso. Mr. Hopper at first seems wasted in the role of a security guard, but he becomes his familiar self after he is tortured briefly and subjected to Mr. Walken's long, sly, deadpan monologue. Rising calmly to the occasion, Mr. Hopper offers a calculated racial remark that is offensive without being entirely gratuitous; his comments do have an obvious dramatic purpose. This film's various outrages are committed unapologetically, and are very much in the service of its bizarre story.

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
"¢ Another Greatest Hits Edition
"¢ November 3, 2007: Appearance on NPR Weekend Edition Saturday

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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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]