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Building Excitement No More: 5 Famous Pontiacs

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General Motors recently announced that as part of their cost-saving/restructuring plan, their 83-year-old Pontiac Motors Division would be phased out by the end of next year. The most famous is arguably KITT, from Knight Rider, which enjoyed two stints on television in the 1980s and 2000s. But so we don't have to mention David Hasselhoff by name (oops!), here's a brief recap of some famous Pontiacs.

1. The Ricardos' 1955 Pontiac Star Chief Convertible

When the Ricardos headed out to Hollywood as part of an I Love Lucy story arc, they drove there in a 1955 Pontiac Star Chief Convertible. Desi Arnaz had arranged a very attractive product placement deal with General Motors "“ not only did the automaker provide a brand new Star Chief for use on the show, each member of the show's writing staff was given a new Pontiac each year for the duration of the series. Catch any of the "Hollywood" episodes in reruns and you'll note that whenever even the slightest mention of the Ricardo vehicle is mentioned, it is almost always referred to as "the Pontiac," and very rarely simply "the car."

2. Buck Wilkin's "Little GTO"

Introduced in 1964, the Pontiac GTO (Gran Turismo Omologato) was one of the first true muscle cars. Like a lot of teenaged males of that era, Nashville's Buck Wilkin loved both hot rods and music. But unlike most teens, his mother had connections in the music business.

So when Wilkin scratched out the lyrics to what would eventually become "Little GTO" during physics class one afternoon in 1964, Mom contacted her pal Bill Justis, a composer and arranger who'd had hit in his own right with the instrumental "Raunchy" in 1957. Justis formed a music publishing company with young Wilkin, and then encouraged him to form a band in order to record it. There was no shortage of talent in Nashville, so in short time Wilkin formed Ronny and the Daytonas and "Little GTO" eventually hit #4 on the Billboard pop chart.

3. The Monkeemobile

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Though it never got the same amount of press as, say, the Batmobile, the Monkeemobile was popular enough to become the second best-selling model kit of all time (surpassed only by the Dukes of Hazzard's General Lee). When The Monkees series was in the planning stages, it was decided that among the many props required to emphasize their rock-and-roll lifestyle, one of the most important was a smokin' car. Pontiac just happened to get involved via a friend-of-a-friend connection (in this case, a friend of Dean Jeffries, who designed custom cars for Universal Studios, hooked him up with an account exec at Pontiac's advertising agency). The agency rep immediately realized that The Monkees, if it were a hit, would appeal to a very desirable audience demographic, and he supplied Jeffries with two 1966 GTO convertibles that were transformed into Monkeemobiles. The intermediary who introduced Jeffries to the ad exec was granted exclusive rights to the model kit (which went on to sell over seven million units) as a "thank you."

4. Oprah's Grand Prizes

oprah-pontiac.jpgMany of the folks sitting in the audience for the taping of The Oprah Winfrey Show on September 9, 2004, knew they'd been selected to receive tickets for that particular show strictly because they were in dire need of a set of wheels. The Internet was buzzing with rumors that Oprah might be giving a few free cars as prizes on the premiere episode of her 19th season. Imagine their stupefaction when the talk show host gleefully announced that all 276 members of the studio audience would receive a 2005 Pontiac G6 sports sedan. The tears poured as Winfrey led them all to the parking lot to show them the luxury options that would be included, such as XM Satellite Radio, OnStar Safety, and heated leather seats. The vehicles, valued at $28,400 each, were all donated by General Motors in an effort to promote the brand new G6, which had been designed with women in mind as the target audience. GM also paid for the sales tax on each vehicle, so this particular promotional gimmick cost the company approximately $7.8 million.

5. The '63 Tempest From My Cousin Vinny

How many of us who know nothing about cars (other than where the fuel nozzle goes) recall that the 1963 Pontiac Tempest had a feature called Positraction? A pivotal scene in the 1992 film My Cousin Vinny gave film fans a crash course on the workings of the limited slip differential. This particular option on the '63 Tempest not only saved the (fictional) lives of two wrongly convicted "yutes," it also helped Marisa Tomei to win a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award.

Any Fiero or Trans Am (or even Aztek) owners out there who care to represent?

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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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