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The Internet Looks Back at 2008

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The internet as we know it was built by, and is populated with, people who are just obsessive-compulsive enough to appreciate a good, ranked top ten list. The turning over of every calendar year is a fine excuse to indulge in an orgy of list-making, as we sum up the previous year and see if there are some lessons we can learn for the new year.

Politics

The news in 2008 was dominated by the US presidential election. Now that the dust has settled somewhat, we can look back at memorable quotes to recall those golden moments, or take another look at the political ads we thought we'd never want to see again. We can go back and find out who broke the stories we remember about the campaign. You can even relive the campaign in comic form. Or, if you are so inclined, take another look at the videos that influenced the electorate. Year-end reviews even come in song and in LOLcat form!

News

250mugyear.jpgIn other news, websites made lists of what they specialize in. The Smoking Gun posted the most memorable mug shots of the year. A couple of those ended up in the most embarrassing photos of the year. Consumerist listed their most disgusting stories. You'll also find a list of the oddest travel stories of 2008. The top crime stories are listed, as well as stupid criminals. Environmental stories made headlines in 2008, as well as the people behind them.

Oh, but we're just getting started! Continue reading for more lists of 2008.

Tech

250iphone.jpgThe world of technology had a pretty good year, judging from the number of year-end lists. Read about the past year's top technology breakthroughs, the biggest technology stories, or significant trends in technology. In some stories, technology news intersected with politics. 2008 may be remembered as the year the geeks took over -or at least that's the way geeks would like to remember it. There were some really disappointing video games and some brilliant gadgets released over the year. All in all, it was a good year for hi-tech products, although there were still some stupid ones.

Sports

250phelps.jpg2008 saw plenty of sports action at the Olympics, where Michael Phelps emerged as the #1 athlete, but he wasn't the only star. We'll always remember the golden moments in Beijing because there are plenty of Olympic photographs. Many sites listed the top sports moments of 2008: AskMen, the Chicago Tribune, and the Houston Press, among others. Each ranking is different. See a large gallery of great sports photographs from 2008 courtesy of Sports Illustrated. Then there are the more bizarre sports lists, such as the most embarrassing football moments and the top sports-related arrests.

Science

250spiral-art-web.jpgScience gives us plenty of year-end lists. Science magazine named the top ten scientific breakthroughs of 2008 and ScienceNow listed their most-read articles of the year. And science lists get very specific for each field. National Geographic listed the top ten archaeological finds as well as the top ten dinosaur and fossil finds of 2008. In biology, read about the top ten new organisms of the year. New Scientist tells us about a year in the quantum world. And then there's the top ten medical stories. Astronomy gave us many amazing stories; here are the top five. You can also see some wonderful astronomy pictures from 2008, whether you want a collection of ten or fifty.

Entertainment

250joker.jpgIt's a tradition to list the best songs, albums, movies, and books every year, even before the internet age. Those lists are basic, and the internet gives us the expanded versions, with the most overlooked albums, the biggest musical flops, funniest music videos of the year, and even the hottest hip-hop wives and girlfriends of 2008. There are lists of movies that made the most money, worst films, independent films, and foreign films. For TV, you'll find plenty of lists of the bad things on the tube, and if you look hard, you may find a list or two about the best of TV.

People

250newman.jpgWe don't know yet who was born to be famous in 2008, but we remember those who left us. You'll find lists of famous people who died, not-so-famous people who died, overlooked people who died, musicians who died, and inventors who died this past year. Also see a list of 15-minute celebrities and celebrities to snark at from 2008. And don't forget to vote in the loser of the year poll.

Online

250matt.jpgThe internet is nothing if not introspective. Many sites and blogs post a list of their best stories at the end of the year. Jon Swift posted everyone else's best story, limited to one post per blogger. But videos are what we spent the most time looking at. You'll find tons of 2008 viral video countdowns. Some edited them into a single video. Some took reader votes. Some listed five, nine, ten, or even thirty (but mostly ten). And they are all different! There were thousands of videos produced in 2008, but the one most watched last year was quite a bit older, as seen in this top five countdown from ABC.
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In case you are looking for lists that aren't mentioned here, you might try TIME's Top Ten Everything of 2008, or the daddy of all lists of annual lists from Filmoculous. Those should keep you busy for a while.

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

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]

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