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The First Time News Was Fit to Print: Michael Jackson

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Every now and again, we head into the archives of The New York Times to find the first time the paper covered a particular topic. With the media offering non-stop coverage of his memorial service today, let's look back at what the Times had to say about Michael Jackson when he was just getting started:

Michael Jackson

April 25, 1973

MJ-1973The Jackson Five, black and from Detroit, were the pioneers, and their weeny-bopper attraction is Michael, now aged 14, who at this year's Academy Award ceremonies sang "Ben," the only love song written so far to a real, live rat.

Merchandising right ahead, Michael's recording company has recorded him as a solo artist. his latest album is Music and Me, which is a further example of his career direction. To have him sing such an emotive tearjerker as the old teen-age ballad "Too Young" is to move him far away from the Jackson Five's early roots, which were solidly commercial rhythm and blues.
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To pop purists, this may be regrettable, but commercially it is an astute move toward maturity and longevity. After all, Michael Jackson is 14 and already they are talking about how old David Cassidy (of the Partridge Family) appears to be to the teeny-boppers.

Keep reading for early reaction to 'Thriller,' Bubbles and more.

Off the Wall

October 21, 1979

The Evolution of Pop Soul
off-the-wallThe fall's best new pop-soul record, Michael Jackson's Off the Wall, is also Motown-related in that Mr. Jackson grew up in the Motown fold as the boy wonder-lead singer of the Jackson Five. Off the Wall is his first solo album since the Jackson family signed with Epic several years ago, and it marks his ultimate transition from child star to adult singing idol. The album teams Mr. Jackson with producer Quincy Jones, the brilliant jazz and pop arranger-conductor-composer.
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Although at this point in his career, Michael Jackson may lack Stevie Wonder's emotional depth, he's already the equal of both Mr. Wonder and Smokey Robinson, the other obvious Motown prototype, in technical control.


December 19, 1982

Michael Jackson's Thriller: Superb Job
thrillerSince he caught the public's fancy as a bouncing, spinning, piping, 11-year-old mini-superstar in 1970, Michael Jackson has been a full-fledged celebrity, living a celebrity's life. That's worth remembering, because it means that today, one must guard against the assumption that he is a mature, fully formed artist and human being. He is certainly a seasoned veteran: His whole life has been shaped by entertainment, and he is a practiced - sometimes too practiced - performer, recording star and film actor. But he remains a young man, and with luck he will continue to mature.
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Thriller is a wonderful pop record, the latest statement by one of the great singers in popular music today. But it is more than that. It is as hopeful a sign as we have had yet that the destructive barriers that spring up regularly between white and black music - and between whites and blacks - in this culture may be breached once again. Most important of all, it is another signpost on the road to Michael Jackson's own artistic fulfillment.

"We Are The World"

February 27, 1985

Artists Join in Effort for Famine Relief
we-are-the-worldOn March 11, Columbia Records will release "We Are the World," a new song written by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson and performed by a chorus of 45 pop stars calling themselves USA for Africa (United Support of Artists for Africa). Roughly 90 percent of the proceeds...will be donated to African famine relief. Another 10 percent will go to fight homelessness and malnutrition in the United States.

"We Are the World" is an American response to "Do They Know It's Christmas?," the single that was recorded late last year in London by Band Aid, a group of British rock stars. The record became the most successful single in British history, selling 3.5 million copies in Britain and 2.5 million in the United States and raising $9.2 million.
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What had begun as a supersession of black singers expanded after Bruce Springsteen agreed to become involved. Some of the stars who ended up donating their talents were Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, Diana Ross, Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Cyndi Lauper, Huey Lewis, Paul Simon and Dionne Warwick.
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The We Are the World album, which Quincy Jones is supervising, will include previously unreleased tracks by a number of major stars. Linda Ronstadt is contributing "Keeping Out of Mischief," Prince "Tears in Your Eyes," and Bruce Springsteen a live version of Jimmy Cliff's "Trapped."


September 14, 1987

Jackson Conquers Tokyo
MJ-BubblesMr. Jackson arrived at Narita Airport Wednesday, and although the concerts' sponsors, N.T.T., Pepsico and Nihon Television, attempted to keep his arrival date and time a secret, hundreds of fans were there to greet him.

Mr. Jackson's pet chimpanzee Bubbles, who has received almost as much publicity here as the rock star, arrived a few hours earlier, wearing a red and white striped shirt and denim overalls. Bubbles was accompanied by three members of Mr. Jackson's staff.

Department stores in Tokyo have been selling stuffed chimpanzees called "Michael's Pets" in honor of Bubbles. And the ice-cream store chain Hobson's advertised it was celebrating the beginning of Mr. Jackson's concert tour by giving away a free scoop of ice cream to each customer who purchased a $21 stuffed Bubbles.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]