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10 People We Lost in 2008 (Who Are Worth Remembering)

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At the end of each year, the media reflects on the famous people who died over the past 12 months. This year's notable losses include Paul Newman, Edmund Hillary, Tim Russert and Arthur C. Clarke. But many others have been ignored by most news outlets. Here are ten more people who passed away in 2008 who are certainly worth remembering, including a Civil War widow, the world's oldest blogger and the man behind the McMuffin.

1. Irena Sandler: Cunning War Hero

During World War II, Catholic social worker Irena Sandler saved some 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. Disguised as a nurse, she would smuggle them out through the sewer, or in sacks, coffins, suitcases and "“ for one baby "“ a mechanic's toolbox. In 1943, she was captured by the Gestapo and tortured. Her legs and feet were broken, and her body suffered permanent scars, but she refused to identify the children (now living new lives) or her accomplices. She escaped after a guard was bribed, returning to work under a different identity.


Though she later won Poland's highest honor, and was nominated last year for a Nobel Peace Prize (she lost to Al Gore), she still suffered from Oscar Schindler-like feelings of guilt. "We who were rescuing children are not some kind of heroes," she said in 2005. "That term irritates me greatly. The opposite is true. I continue to have qualms of conscience that I did so little. I could have done more. This regret will follow me to my death."

2. Maudie Hopkins: The Last Civil War Widow

Maudie Hopkins was almost certainly the last surviving widow of a Confederate soldier "“ and as the Civil War came to an end in 1865, it was no small achievement that she made it all the way to 2008. OK, it helps to know that her husband, widower William M. Cantrell, was only 16 when he enlisted. In 1934, 86-year-old Cantrell and 19-year-old Hopkins entered a marriage of convenience, as he offered to bequeath his land and home to her if she looked after him in his final years. He died only three years later, and she lived off his land, marrying three more times. It might have required a 67-year age difference, but Hopkins seems to have been the last surviving Civil War widow "“ and she was born 50 years after the war!

3. Albert Hofmann: Discovered LSD

Swiss scientist Albert Hoffman made an accidental discovery in 1943, while researching the use of lysergic acid derivatives in medicinal drugs. Absorbing a small quantity through his fingertips, he felt the effects on a bicycle ride home, experiencing the world's first LSD trip. Three days later, he deliberately consumed larger quantities of LSD, writing of the "remarkable restlessness" and "extremely stimulated imagination" that it gave him. Though it was used successfully in psychoanalysis, it became popular as a recreational drug in the sixties, as Timothy Leary promoted acid tripping as a spiritual experience and countless rock stars used it for inspiration. Hofmann was unhappy with this, feeling that his discovery was being misused by youth culture "“ and of course, demonized by the authorities for its dangerous side effects. He went on to defend LSD in numerous articles and books, and in an international symposium held on his 100th birthday in 2006.

4. Anita Page: Silent Film Star

anita.jpgEighty years after the first sound movies (or "talkies") were made, there is almost nobody left from the silent movie era. Anita Page was one of the youngest silent movie stars, making her first movie (in a small role) at age 15 in 1925. Over the next few years, she would co-star with such silent screen legends as Joan Crawford, Lon Chaney and Buster Keaton. A very pretty blonde best known for playing lively flappers, Page's fans included Benito Mussolini, who (she claimed) proposed to her several times via fan mail. Page was the last survivor of the original Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, and starred in The Broadway Melody, the first talkie to win an Oscar for best film. She retired from movies at age 26, but made one of the most surprising comebacks in history 60 years later, at age 86, in the obscure thriller Sunset After Dark. When she died at age 98, her last film, Frankenstein Rising, was still in post-production. Not bad for someone who retired in 1936.

So was she the last of the adult silent film stars? You would think so, unless you discover that Barbara Kent, co-star of movies like Flesh and the Devil (1926) and No Man's Law (1927), is still apparently living in Idaho at age 102.

5. Tony Schwartz: The Man Behind "Daisy"

daisy.jpgYou might not know the name, but you probably know some of his work. Tony Schwartz was an advertiser, art director and political consultant whose most famous advertisement was "Daisy," a notorious 30-second spot that helped Lyndon Johnson win the 1964 Presidential election by a landslide. "Daisy" is still remembered today, which is highly impressive because a) it aired 44 years ago, and b) it aired only once during the election. In the days before cable, that's all it took for one powerful commercial to be effective "“ and whether you consider this an amazing work of art or a disgraceful piece of fear-mongering, this ad was certainly powerful. It showed a young girl innocently counting the petals on a daisy, while a narrator counts down. The camera ominously zooms into the pupil of the girl's eye "“ and a nuclear bomb detonates, releasing a mushroom cloud. "These are the stakes," says Johnson's voice, suggesting (convincingly, it would seem) that a vote for his opponent, Barry Goldwater, could lead to ultimate disaster.

Schwartz made many political ads, mainly for Democrats, but in his long career, he also conceived ads for companies like Chrysler and Coca-Cola.

6. Jo Stafford: "G.I. Jo"

If you've never heard of Jo Stafford, you're probably too young"¦ like most other people. While her death at age 90 went unnoticed by many, she was a huge recording star at her peak, known for her pure, melodic and versatile voice. That peak, however, was the early 1950s "“ so she outlived most of her fans. Starting as a Big Band singer during World War II, she went solo in 1944, recording no less than 93 songs over the years, including chart-topping classics like "You Belong to Me" (1952) and "Make Love to Me" (1954). She also had her own television series and sang for servicemen, who called her "G.I. Jo." But she didn't win a Grammy Award until 1960 "“ and she did it by joking around. After a recording session, she and her husband, musician Paul Weston, did some songs as a truly awful duet called Jonathan and Darlene Edwards, with "Darlene" singing off-key and "Jonathan" playing piano badly. For a laugh, they released a few songs in these personae, winning a Grammy for best comedy album. Silly as it was, it was perhaps Stafford's most influential work. She is now viewed as a pioneer of musical parody.

7. Herb Peterson: Inventor of the Egg McMuffin

herb.jpgMost great inventors are only known for one invention. Herb Peterson, a food scientist, gave the world one very common innovation, enjoyed by millions of people each day: the McDonald's Egg McMuffin, first sold in 1972 at a McDonald's franchise he owned in Santa Barbara, California. A big fan of eggs benedict, he devised the McMuffin as McDonald's answer to this traditional breakfast dish "“ although, to the serious café patron, processed cheese might not hold quite the same appeal as rich hollandaise sauce. Nonetheless, it worked for McDonald's, which soon had a signature breakfast sandwich to complement the burgers. The fast food chain has since earned $4-5 billion from the Peterson's invention.

8. Del Martin: Gay Rights Activist

Del Martin was a pioneer lesbian rights activist, in the days when women in general (gay or straight) struggled to be regarded as equals. In 1955, she and her partner, Phyllis Lyons, co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian political organization in the US (named after a 19th-century collection of Sapphic love poems). Martin was also the first openly gay board member of the National Organization of Women, and helped form the Council of Religion and Homosexuality in 1964, fighting to ensure that homosexuals were accepted in churches. Her hard work was finally rewarded on June 16, 2008, when the law allowing same-sex marriages was passed in California. She and Lyons were legally wed in California's first union of that type. They were just in time; Martin was 87. She died in August, only months before the law was rescinded.

9. Clay Felker: Magazine Pioneer

Just as today's magazine editors worry about the internet, their predecessors of 40 years ago feared losing their readers and advertisers to the growing popularity of television. In fact, Clay Felker is part of the reason there are still so many magazines on the newsstand. As founding editor of New York in 1968, he invented a new style of magazine: chic, energetic, gossipy, civic-minded, cynical and in-crowd. With star writers like Tom Wolfe, Gail Sheehy (whom he later married) and Jimmy Breslin, he pioneered the famous "new journalism." It changed and revitalized the magazine world. Felker would also edit Esquire, The Village Voice, Adweek and other magazines, and helped Gloria Steinem "“ one of his staff writers at New York "“ start the influential feminist magazine, Ms.

10. Olive Riley: World's Oldest Blogger

olive-riley.jpg

Born in 1899 in the Outback mining town of Broken Hill, Olive Riley disproves the idea that older people can't learn to use new technology. She started her blog, The Life of Riley, in 2006. Over the next two years, she would write 70 posts and "“ thanks partly to a documentary about her life "“ accumulated 1.2 million hits. She was even nominated for a Blogger's Choice Award. Though she was probably Australia's oldest woman, she took more pride in the title of World's Oldest Blogger. Inspiring as this was, her posts mainly chronicled her declining health. She also spoke about her love of the environment and the importance of saving energy, encouraging tinkerers and inventors to make energy-saving devices. She posted her last blog in April (though her friends kept readers updated in later installments), and died in July at the age of 108.

Mark Juddery is a Australian writer and historian. His latest book, Busted! The 50 Most Overrated Things in History, is published by Random House.

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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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