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10 Controversial Stamps

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istock

You wouldn't think something as small and mundane as a stamp would be much cause for controversy, but over the years, there are quite a few stamps that have upset more than just collectors. Here are 10 of them.

1. In 1994, the U.S. Postal Service somehow thought it would be a great idea to issue mushroom cloud stamps to honor the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII. Naturally, the Japanese government wasn't thrilled about the notion. The White House stepped in and basically vetoed the idea (the New York Times reported that the then-White House Chief of Staff "made it clear that President Clinton preferred an alternative"), so a depiction of Harry Truman was used instead.

pickett2. Apparently 1994 was a rough year for the Postal Service - it was then that they released a stamp to honor rodeo star Bill Pickett. Bill was in the 101 Ranch Wild West Show and toured with Buffalo Bill, Will Rogers and Tom Mix, among others, and his stamp was part of a "Legends of the West" series. The problem? The 20 million sheets of stamps that were shipped out for sale at post offices had the wrong guy on them. The stamp actually depicted Bill's brother, Ben, who was noticeably more rotund than Bill. The Postal Service recalled the stamps and had them destroyed, but not before one post office accidentally sold three or four sheets before the official release date. To be fair, it was an honest mistake "“ the caption of the picture used to create the stamp was mislabeled. However, if you find one of these stamps, it's not worth the chunk of change you might think. The Postal Service took 150,000 of the sheets with the errors on them and issued them by lottery, making them not quite as unique. They go for anywhere from $175 to $275 on the market today.

3. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing has regulations that stop their engravers from putting anything unauthorized on stamps, even microscopic things invisible to the naked eye. But that doesn't always mean that employees abide by those rules.

In 1987, it was discovered that Kenneth Kipperman hid a Star of David in the portrait on a $1 stamp, educator Bernard Revel. The object itself wasn't questionable, as Revel was Jewish, but the whole situation became even stranger when Kipperman was arrested for threatening to bomb the site of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C. He was protesting the destruction of the current building to make way for the Holocaust Museum, which happened to be right next door to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Since then, supplies of the stamp have run out, and rather than reprint, the Postal Service has decided to replace it with a portrait of Johns Hopkins.

unabomber4. Stamps.com used to let you put anything you want on a stamp "“ almost. The Smoking Gun put the company to the test and submitted pictures of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Monica Lewinsky's dress, Slobodan Milosevic, Jimmy Hoffa, Linda Tripp and the Unabomber. Well, high school and college pictures of Ted Kaczynski. The typical grizzled, bearded picture we have all seen a million times didn't make it through the censors. Also denied: Lee Harvey Oswald and Salvatore (Sammy Bull) Gravano. Perhaps because of the experiment, Stamps.com changed their policy and decided to no longer allow pictures of adults or teens, unless submitted through "trusted channels" such as portrait studios. Photo from The Smoking Gun.

5. Russian stamps issued in 2002 caused quite the stir among citizens. The stamps honor six of Stalin's secret policemen renowned for their abilities to catch foreign spies, but at least two of those six also committed terrible atrocities against their own countrymen, including deporting thousands of peasants in the "˜30s. Although the Russian House of Stamps issued a statement saying they were strictly honoring the 80th anniversary of Russia's counter-intelligence service, citizens were concerned that the government was trying to send a message.

stopes6. A similar situation (being honored for one cause, while angering citizens for other reasons) has recently arisen in Britain, where a stamp has been issued with the picture of Marie Stopes. She was a pioneer in the field of family planning who opened the U.K.'s first family planning clinic, which is why she earned a spot on a stamp. But she was also a Nazi sympathizer who sent a book of poetry to Hitler and was a fan of eugenics. Despite the controversy, Stopes remains in the set of stamps that honor women (so far).

freddie7. A 1999 U.K. stamp featuring Freddie Mercury upset a lot of people "“ but not people opposed to Mercury's lifestyle, as you might suspect. Well, the Royal Mail received a few complaints regarding that, but the majority of them were upset because Queen drummer Roger Taylor was featured rather vaguely in the background of the stamp. The problem? Living people aren't supposed to be on stamps (except members of the Royal Family). The Royal Mail admitted that it was rare that they would break the rules like that, but basically said that given the size of the stamp, a person featured in the background really shouldn't be that big of a deal.

8. Famous Bluesman Robert Johnson was at the center of controversy in 1994, 56 years after his death. There are only two known photographs of Johnson (and a third much-disputed one), so when one of them was altered for the stamp, people were upset. Namely, smokers. The famous photobooth picture of Johnson, with a cigarette dangling between his lips and a guitar in his hand, was changed to delete the cigarette. The President of the National Smokers Alliance called the omission "an affront to the more than 50 million Americans who choose to smoke." However, a cig has cameoed on a stamp before "“ a 1982 stamp featuring FDR shows him holding a cigarette and holder.

flag9. Earlier this year, a collector discovered that one of the Postal Service stamps featuring an American flag had 14 stripes on it. The Postal Service apologized and said that the extra stripe at the bottom was added to give the flag definition and the mistake was never caught. They have no plans to recall the stamp, but did release a statement saying they acknowledged the error and apologized for it.
10. When the U.S. issued a stamp to honor Frida Kahlo, not everyone was happy about it. Especially Jesse Helms. He took to the Senate floor to protest the stamp, saying she was an unfit subject. He wasn't the only one: people wrote in, upset that a Communist, drug addict and bisexual should be featured on a U.S. stamp. Even the Wall Street Journal published an article called "The Stalinist and the Stamp: The Wonders of Postal Diversity."

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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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