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Early Coverage of the Web, the Segway, David Petraeus & David Brent

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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 the World Wide Web, the Segway, Michael Stipe and more.

World Wide Web

February 28, 1993

A Web of Networks, an Abundance of Services
world-wide-web.jpgBill Clinton and Al Gore made a campaign promise to help build a national data network, hoping it would lead to new digital information services. While waiting to see if the new Administration follows through, businesses can get a taste of the future with the rapidly growing commercial networks of computer services.
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Cheryl Currid, a business consultant in Houston, said she had begun using Radiomail, a Menlo Park, Calif., company that provides two-way mobile electronic mail over the Internet. Since she signed up, her cellular phone bill has dropped sharply.

"I'm an electronic mail addict," she said. "People can find me wherever I am. I have negotiated several business deals recently without even using a telephone."
* * * * *
Additionally, gateways exist so that WAIS users can retrieve information from non-WAIS data bases like Gopher, developed by university users of Next computers, and the World Wide Web, which makes available physicists' research from many locations.

Keep reading for Michael Stipe, the Segway, and more...

Michael Stipe

May 30, 1984

The Poplife
stipe.jpgLast year, R.E.M.'s first album, Murmur (I.R.S.), rose to a respectable No. 36 on the charts and won almost unanimous critical acclaim. There were a few detractors, who complained that they couldn't understand the lyrics being sung by R.E.M.'s lead vocalist, Michael Stipe. They wondered if there really was anything there. The new R.E.M. album, Reckoning, has won over most of the skeptics with songs and arrangements that seem more direct and focused, and singing that aims more at being understood.
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Reckoning has moved up to No. 26 on the album charts and shows signs of becoming R.E.M.'s first big seller. "People keep telling us that to succeed in pop music these days you have to have either real loud guitars or a dance beat, preferably both, Mr. Buck said. "I guess we could have had that; we could have done a zillion things to advance our careers. But we insist on taking it at our own speed. We're going to be touring now for a month and a half or so, then taking some time off to work on songs for the next album, then going back out for another month. If we're going to be successful, we want it to be on our own terms."

Segway

December 3, 2001

An Inventor Unveils His Mysterious Personal Transportation Device
GOB-segway.jpgIt is not a hovercraft, a helicopter backpack or a teleportation pod.

The mystery transportation device being developed by the award-winning inventor Dean Kamen—the subject of continuous fevered speculation since provocative clues and predictions surfaced in media reports last January—is not hydrogen-powered, a favored theory in Internet discussions. Nor does it run on a superefficient Stirling engine (yet).

But if the public's collective yearning for Jetsonian travel technology must remain unrequited this week, at least the speculators will have their curiosity satisfied.

Mr. Kamen plans to demonstrate today a two-wheeled battery-powered device designed for a single standing rider. Its chief novelty lies in the uncanny effect, produced by a finely tuned gyroscopic balancing mechanism, of intuiting where its rider wants to go—and going there.

David Petraeus

May 12, 1974

Hollister Knowlton Betrothed To David H. Petraeus, a Cadet
petraeus.jpg Lieut. Gen. William A Knowlton, superintendent of the United States Military Academy, and Mrs. Knowlton have announced the engagement of their daughter Miss Hollister Knowlton of First Classman David Howell Petraeus, who will graduate from West Point June 5. He is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Sixtus Petraeus of Cornwall, NY.

Miss Knowlton who will graduate June 2 from Dickinson College, and her fiancé have planned their wedding for early July. An alumna of the Madeira School in Greenway, VA, she was presented at the Internation Debutante Ball here.

David Brent

January 19, 2003

Finding Humor in the Everyday Horror of the Office
david-brent.jpgThe man in charge of this division, David Brent (played by Ricky Gervais, who writes and directs The Office with Stephen Merchant), is the type of lower middle manager who wants to be both a dignified leader of men and a politically incorrect laddie. Wearing a fidgety smile and a goatee he is a few years too old for, he is forever making tired jokes that are greeted with queasy silence. Still, he thinks he's the life of the party. Mr. Gervais calls Brent an example of "blind spot" comedy.
* * * * *
By the time Gervais met Stephen Merchant, it was 1997 and he had landed a marketing job at a London radio station, XFM. Mr. Merchant, who was his assistant, described Mr. Gervais as "the laziest man I'd ever met." He also felt that Mr. Gervais was a born entertainer.

"He'd never done any stand-up or proper stage performing," said Mr. Merchant, 28. In lieu of actually working, Mr. Gervais created a string of elaborate characters just to make Mr. Merchant laugh. "The turns of phrase, the way he spoke, the body language," Mr. Merchant said. "It was like he'd been practicing it in his bedroom for years, waiting for someone to be his audience—only he hadn't. It just came to him instinctively. I thought: 'Wait a minute. There's something here.' I told him: 'Gervais, you're a fat, funny man. Let's show the world.'"

The two men got their chance when Mr. Merchant was accepted in a BBC production training course. He was required to make a short film, and had Mr. Gervais play the lead in his "seedy boss" persona. Mr. Gervais, who said he used to watch the mock documentary This Is Spinal Tap every day, felt right at home in a faux-reality format. Pleased with the outcome, the two showed the 20-minute film to a BBC executive. The rest, as Mr. Gervais put it, has been "like a fairy tale."

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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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