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6 Unusual Things Owned by Newspapers

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The Tribune Company has been in the news lately as it works towards selling off one of its prized assets, the Chicago Cubs. The company, which owns the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and a slew of other papers, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last month, so it could really use whatever cash selling the Cubbies can bring in. While it might sound odd for a newspaper company to own a baseball team, the Cubs are just one unusual property held by newspaper conglomerates around the country. Here are a few others:

1. The Boston Red Sox

red-sox.gifThe Cubs aren't the only Major League Baseball team partially owned by a newspaper. The Boston Red Sox are a subsidiary of New England Sports Ventures LLC, which also owns Fenway Park and the majority of the New England Sports Network. While John W. Henry is the principal owner of this group, the New York Times Company also owns a piece. The publishing giant shelled out $75 million for a 17.5% stake in New England Sports Ventures in 2002, which makes it the company's second-largest stakeholder. In addition to the Red Sox, this share also gives the Times a stake in Roush-Fenway Racing, the NASCAR team that fields drivers Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, and Matt Kenseth among others.

However, like the Tribune's ownership of the Cubs, this arrangement might not last too much longer. Declining ad revenues have forced the Times to divest assets that aren't related to its core publishing business, and reports have circulated in recent weeks that the paper is actively seeking a buyer for its share of the sports empire.

2. Manheim Auctions

You may not have heard of it, but Manheim Automotive Services is the world's largest car auction company. The auctioneer has 145 locations around the world where interested wholesale customers can pick up a new set of wheels. Since 1968, it's been a part of Cox Enterprises, a media conglomerate whose portfolio includes such large dailies as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Dayton Daily News, along with several dozen other papers. The auction business isn't Cox's only foray into the automotive world, though. It also owns Auto Trader magazine, friend of anyone in search of a used ride, and Dent Wizard, a company that specializes in paintless dent removal.

Cox once owned an even quirkier asset to go along with its newspapers: Zack Morris. Well, maybe not exactly Zack Morris, but his syndication rights. For a period of time after 1988 Cox owned Rysher Entertainment, which held the distribution rights for Saved by the Bell. That the Atlanta Journal-Constitution never gave Screech Powers a weekly column is a reprehensible oversight.

3. Kaplan, Inc.

Kaplan, the savior of anyone with standardized test anxiety, is a subsidiary of the Washington Post Company. Founder Stanley Kaplan sold his tutoring company to the publisher in 1984, and the Washington Post quickly expanded the test-prep business by gobbling up competitors through acquisitions. The plan seems to have worked perfectly; while newspapers may be in trouble, Kaplan raked in around $2 billion for its parent company last year.

The Washington Post Company actually holds a number of interesting non-paper assets. In addition to magazines like Newsweek and websites like Slate, it also owns Cable ONE, a cable and Internet service provider for homes in 19 states.

4. eCRUSH.com

e-crush.jpgIf you're a teenager who's too bashful to tell someone you've got a crush on them, eCRUSH.com will do the legwork for you. The site lets users anonymously make lists of people on whom they have crushes, and if two people list each other, then BAM! The site notifies them, and it's time for some hot hand-holding action. Hearst Media bought the site in 2006, and it now resides in the company's portfolio along with papers like the San Franciso Chronicle and magazine titles like Esquire. This sort of site probably wasn't what William Randolph Hearst envisioned when he started his publishing empire, but hopefully everyone will agree that it could really help spice up any sequels to Citizen Kane.

5. Metro Fiber & Cable Construction

This Toledo contractor can service all of your fiber-optic installation needs. It's also a subsidiary of Block Communications, which publishes Toledo's daily The Blade as well as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

6. The Scripps National Spelling Bee

spelling-champ.jpgThe E.W. Scripps Company publishes 15 newspapers, including the Rocky Mountain News and the Knoxville News-Sentinel. It also owns and operates an asset that's probably more familiar to anyone who's flipped through ESPN in May or June: the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Scripps now runs the bee, which started in 1925, on a not-for-profit basis in conjunction with several hundred sponsors. It proudly touts itself as the nation's largest and longest-running educational promotion.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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