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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.
* * * * *
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.
* * * * *
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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

501069-OpeningCeremony2.jpg

Opening Ceremony

To this:

501069-OpeningCeremony3.jpg

Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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