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Diana's Early Press Problems (plus 9 other NY Times first mentions)

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Every Monday, we travel into the archives of The New York Times to find the first time the paper covered various topics. This edition looks at Princess Diana, Yo-Yo Ma, Chuck Klosterman, Nelson Mandela, The Simpsons and more.

Diana Spencer

December 15, 1980

For 'Hounding' a Friend of Charles, Press Is Chided
diana-spencer.jpgThe latest round of feverish speculation about Prince Charles's marriage prospects has touched off a new debate in Britain about the press and royal privacy.

Even Buckingham Palace, which normally says not a word about such things, has felt obliged to formally protest some of the recent speculation, and the mother of Lady Diana Spencer, the 19-year-old woman being mentioned as a possible royal bride, has indignantly accused the newspapers of printing lies and hounding her daughter.

"May I ask the editors of Fleet Street," said Lady Diana's mother, Frances Shand Kydd, in a letter published in The Times of London this month, "whether they consider it necessary or fair to harass my daughter daily, from dawn until well after dusk? Is it fair to ask any human being, regardless of circumstances, to be treated in this way?"
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For weeks, her picture has been in the newspapers almost daily, accompanied by stories reporting such momentous news as the fact that she stalled her mini-car, a bright red Metro, in traffic and had trouble restarting it, or that she disclosed in an interview that she liked children, a trait that is presumably not unusual in a kindergarten teacher.

Yo-Yo Ma

November 19, 1962

Spectacle on Closed-Circuit TV to Herald Cultural Center Drive
yo-yo-ma.jpgOne of the most ambitious closed-circuit television shows to be produced will open a $30,000,000 fund-raising campaign on November 29 for the National Cultural Center in Washington.
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Called "An American Pageant of the Arts" and conceived a year ago by Roger L. Stevens, the center's chairman, the show will have a cast of 100, including President and Mrs. Kennedy, former President and Mrs. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Leonard Bernstein (as master of ceremonies), Pablo Casals, Marian Anderson, Van Cliburn, Robert Frost, Fredric March, Benny Goodman, Bob Newhart and a 7-year-old Chinese cellist named Yo-Yo Ma, who was brought to the program's attention by Casals.

Keep reading for Chuck Klosterman, Jeff Bezos, Nelson Mandela, Marty McFly and more.

Chuck Klosterman

June 3, 2001

Headbanger's Ball
klosterman1.jpgFor Chuck Klosterman...the end of hair metal was a kick in the heart. Growing up in a North Dakota farm town, Klosterman, now a music and film critic for The Akron Beacon Journal, used metal to invent himself. Pop Satanism, flamboyant excess: these were his heartland values, and he's here to insist that Tipper Gore needn't have worried. The kids were all right. They knew a multimedia pose when it was marketed to them.

As goofy as its subject, Fargo Rock City is part memoir, part barstool rant, and it is ridiculously engaging. The tone, to put it mildly, is loose. Klosterman lists the apparent sexual proclivities -- based on their lyrics and videos, anyway -- of different metal bands. ("WINGER: Whoever Bon Jovi groupies used to baby-sit. POISON: Girls who liked to tease; girls from small towns; good girls gone bad. KISS: Any girl who wasn't dead. IRON MAIDEN: Dead girls.") He compares Jon Bon Jovi to Robert Frost, analyzes the Whitesnake video where Tawny Kitaen copulated with a Porsche, reveals his salary, his sexual and drinking histories and his home phone number should readers have a complaint.

Jeff Bezos

January 2, 1997

Payoff Still Elusive in Internet Gold Rush
bezos9.jpgThere are three main ways that companies (and individuals) are trying to make money on the Internet. The first is to develop content so compelling that people will pay to see it, a strategy that has succeeded mostly in the pornography market, but is also being followed by Encyclopædia Britannica ( among others.

The second, and far easier, path is to sell advertising, generally consisting of little banners at the top of popular Web pages that with one click will take the user away to a Web site for, say, a taco. Many observers question the effectiveness of banner ads, and many users complain about finding sales pitches everywhere.
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The third road to Internet riches is taking orders on line for real-life products, a $518 million market in 1996, Forrester Research estimated. When experts talk about on-line retailers, one of the first names that comes up is Virtual Vineyards (, which is based in Palo Alto, Calif., and has shipped tens of thousands of bottles of Internet-ordered wine since early 1995.
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But Jeff P. Bezos, founder and chief executive of Seattle-based (, which bills itself as "Earth's biggest bookstore" and is generally regarded as one of the big Internet success stories, with sales increasing by more than one-third each month for the last 18 months, put things in a different light.

"We are not profitable," he said. "We could be. It would be the easiest thing in the world to be profitable. It would also be the dumbest. We are taking what might be profits and reinvesting them in the future of the business. It would literally be the stupidest decision any management team could make to make profitable right now."

Nelson Mandela

August 13, 1952

South Africa Seizes Non-White Leaders
mandela-1951.jpgWith the bulk of the 2,015 non-white defiers of "unjust laws" still crowding the jails...the Nationalist Government today struck at the defiance campaign organized by the African National Congress (Negroes) and Indian Congress by arresting six prominent Indian and Negro leaders, including Yusuf Cachalia, joint secretary of the South African Indian Congress, and Nelson Mandela, president of the Youth League of the African National Congress. All six submitted quietly. They were told they were being held under the anti-Red law.

Mel Kiper, Jr.

April 6, 1981

The Draftnik Papers
mel-kiper.jpg What do you do if you are an 18-year-old junior college student with little interest in school but a lot in sports? Mel Kiper Jr. of Baltimore solved that problem by dropping out of college and going into the sports business. He began operating a service to provide inside information on college and pro football teams to bettors or anyone who wants to use it. Kiper extracted information from any source he could find, such as newspapers, games on television and contacts around the country. He began getting people to make videotape recordings from television of games in their areas. He then analyzed the games.
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Last month he brought out a 96-page magazine-like publication on the draft that reads like a report a pro team might compile. The 1981 Draft Report, for a price of $20, is so detailed that it not only gives names, weights, heights and speeds of the best prospects for the National Football League draft later this month, but also analyzes the needs of each team, projects next year's top prospects and even discusses the attitude problems of some of this season's top prospects.

Of Leonard Mitchell, a 270-pound University of Houston tackle, Kiper brashly writes: "Will need to show more dedication and prove that he wants to excel."

Marty McFly

July 3, 1985

In 'Future,' Boy Returns to the Past
The hero of the film is named Marty McFly, though his mother insists, when he ventures back in time 30 years, on calling him Calvin Klein. The film's observation that, in those days, a name sewn onto the back of one's pants was probably one's own is only one of the shrewd, rueful contrasts it draws between 1955 and the present day. Once Marty (played winningly by Michael J. Fox) steps into the specially equipped DeLorean owned by a mad scientist friend of his and floors the accelerator, he finds himself in a much simpler world. The neighborhood where he will someday live hasn't even been built. The local soda jerk thinks anyone who orders a Pepsi Free ("If you want a Pepsi you gotta pay for it!") is being a wise guy. The town's movie theater is playing a Ronald Reagan film, and when Marty announces that Mr. Reagan will be President some day, he is met with a stare of disbelief and a sarcastic remark about Vice President Jerry Lewis.
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One of the most appealing things about Back to the Future is its way of putting nostalgia gently in perspective. Like Marty, Mr. Zemeckis takes a bemused but unsentimental view of times gone by. And he seems no less fascinated by the future, which is understandable. His own looks very bright.

And here are three gems we've covered in past installments...

The Simpsons

December 23, 1988

simpsons.jpgTelevision Ad for Cartoonist
It is rare that an underground cartoonist finds himself in demand for commercial work, but Matt Groening has made the leap. Mr. Groening is the creator of Life in Hell, an anarchic strip that appears in 103 publications, mostly alternative newsweeklies. Now, The Simpsons, a strange cartoon family he invented for television's Tracey Ullman Show, will be featured in a new ad by Lintas: New York for Butterfinger candy bars, a Planters Life Savers product that makes its debut Jan. 2.

Digital Watch

July 21, 1973

A Watch That Takes the Hard Time Out of Telling Time
pulsar1.jpgNow there's a new toy for the man with a collection of watches. The digital watch, which is operated by a sort of tiny computer, takes all the guess work out of time reading by flashing the hours and minutes in numerals on its face.
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Sales are brisk although the Pulsar is not a thing of beauty compared to many good watches. The watch itself is thick, to accommodate its computer and battery, and weighs about four ounces with its metal strap. Until its "command" button is pressed, it shows nothing but a blank, dark-red face and looks like a dead television screen. But that, presumably, is the fun of owning one. Ask the Pulsar wearer what time it is, and without saying a word, he presses the button and you know it's 9:42.

Product Placement (in movies/TV)

November 15, 1982

Plugging Products In Movies As An Applied Art
The script for Rocky III is amended to include a Wheaties scene, in which Rocky advises his young son to eat the "breakfast of champions" if he wants to grow up big and strong. In North Dallas 40, a scene involving salad dressing is inserted so that the actors can conspicuously use Bertolli Olive Oil. In Honeysuckle Rose, the beer bottles are carefully arranged so that a particular beer is by Willie Nelson's side when he's relaxed and happy. As for the troublemakers, they drink another brand.

tv_friends.gifThese touches are the handiwork of an up-and-coming entrepreneur called the product placer, whose business it is to make sure that moviemakers and manufacturers enjoy a close, symbiotic relationship. In the days when Hollywood cared more for elegance, this might not have been possible "“ brand-name products on screen would have seemed hopelessly declasse. Even in recent years, the use of merchandise in movies was fairly random. But nowadays it's becoming an organized process, and the brand-name products that turn up as movie props are less and less likely to have landed there by accident.

[Image of mental_floss on Friends courtesy of The Trivia Hall of Fame. "Actor David Arquette became a fan, and a copy ended up in Courtney Cox-Arquette's hands on the set."]

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”