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Not-So-Famous Firsts: Entertainment Edition

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From the time that the first humanoids roamed the Earth, one of the basic necessities of life besides food, water and oxygen has always been the ability to entertain oneself. There are some naysayers who will dispute that we've come a long way since being amused by a rock and a stick, but nevertheless I present a few miscellaneous entertainment "firsts":

The First Drive-In Movie Theater

Richard Milton Hollingshead, Jr., was looking for money making opportunities while the U.S. was in the throes of the Great Depression. He noted that even though pennies were being pinched, folks still managed to shell out a few cents to see a movie on a regular basis. His research also discovered that children tended to go to theaters during the daytime to catch the matinee, while evening showings were the realm of adults (if they could afford a babysitter and Dad could be cajoled into dressing up and going out after a hard day at work). Another consideration was that most cinemas of that era were in downtown locations that did not include free parking lots. The solution was an open-air theater where movies could be viewed from the comfort of the family car, where childcare and formal dress were unnecessary. He opened the first Drive-In Theater on June 6, 1933, on Crescent Boulevard in Camden, New Jersey. The admission price was 25 cents per vehicle and an extra 25 cents for each passenger other than the driver.

People Magazine Firsts

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The fist issue of People Magazine hit the shelves on March 4, 1974. Mia Farrow was on the cover to promote The Great Gatsby. People's first million-selling issue also featured its first topless cover—the subject baring it all was none other than Telly "Kojak" Savalas. The first non-human to grace the cover was Star Wars robot C3PO (in 1977), and the first "Sexiest Man Alive" cover appeared on February 4, 1985, with Mel Gibson winning the honor.

Entertainment Tonight Hosts

Although Mary Hart has become synonymous with Entertainment Tonight, she was not one of the original hosts of the program. When it debuted in 1981 the co-anchors were Ron Hendren and Marjorie Wallace, who was also the first American to win the Miss World contest.

Bowling Firsts

The first permanent bowling gaming areas in the U.S. were established in what is now New York's Battery Park. At that time, nine-pin bowling was played outdoors on the lawn (which is why there are several cities on the map today called "Bowling Green"). When nine-pin bowling became synonymous with gambling and general unsavory-ness, an extra pin was added to the mix by savvy entrepreneurs and 10-pin bowling was born. However, the rules of the game were sketchy, and there was no uniformity in such specifics as lane length and ball weight.

In September 1895, Joe Thumb founded the American Bowling Congress, which established a standardized set of general rules and opened the door to national leagues and competitions. Bowling balls were made of wood until 1905 when Evertrue introduced the first rubber bowling ball. "Pin boys"—athletic young lads who quickly reset pins and returned the ball after each roll—were a fixture at bowling alleys until 1951. American Machine and Foundry (AMF) had been tinkering with an automatic pinsetting device since 1946, and five years later a bowling alley in Mt. Clemens, Michigan, installed the first solid pinwheel chain-driven table drive that worked well enough to elevate AMF to major player status in the sports equipment realm.

Hollywood Bowl

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The Beatles were the first rock and roll "act" to play at the famed Hollywood Bowl. The date was August 23, 1964, and the top ticket price was $7.00 for selected box seats. Compare that to July 2010, when the L.A. Philharmonic will be performing "A Beatles Celebration" at the Hollywood Bowl. No actual Beatle will be performing, yet the best seats in the house are on sale for $120 each.

MTV's First Day

When MTV debuted on August 1, 1981, Mark Goodman was the first VJ to appear on the air. He was the one who introduced the first video ever played on that network, "Video Killed the Radio Star" by the Buggles. A total of 62 different videos were played that first day, five of which were by Rod Stewart. REO Speedwagon had four videos featured, while The Pretenders and April Wine each had three. Of course, being in heavy rotation wasn't necessarily a measure of an artist's popularity back then, it was just a matter of which record label had financed the most videos for its artist roster.

See Also: Aviation Edition.

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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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May 23, 2017
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