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12 (Non-Sexual) Uses for 900 Numbers

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The term "900 number" probably conjures up images of phone sex operators or, even worse, teen heartthrobs tricking young girls into running up their parents' phone bills. In 900 numbers' heydays during the 1980s and 1990s, though, callers could do all sorts of things simply by dialing 1-900 and having a charge added to their phone bills. Let's take a look at some of the more interesting examples.

1. Ask President Carter a Question

The very earliest 900 numbers weren't built around exorbitant per-minute charges; they only set callers back for their normal long-distance rates. In March 1977, callers could dial a special 900 number and ask President Jimmy Carter a question for a national radio broadcast moderated by Walter Cronkite.

2. Dial-A-Shuttle

Ever wonder what's going on during a space shuttle mission? During the 1980s, NASA ran a 900 number that filled you in. For 35 cents a minute, callers could listen in on mission status reports and any press conferences NASA held mid-flight. The number was originally created so journalists could listen to conversation between the shuttle and mission control. The hotline later became public, which made for a horrifying situation when thousands of callers heard the Challenger explosion in real time.

3. Kill Off Robin




DC Comics found itself in an awkward spot in 1988 when Batman fans had become truly sick of Jason Todd, the second character to fill the role of Robin. DC didn't know what to do with the character, though, so the writers let the fans decide. At the end of Batman #427, the Joker brutally beat Robin and left him to die in an explosion. DC printed a 900 number in that issue and gave voters a 36-hour window to call and vote on whether or not the Boy Wonder should die. Fans killed off Robin by a 5,343 to 5,271 margin, which led to outcry among old-guard comic fans and writers. Of course, since we're talking about comics, Jason Todd later miraculously came back to life.

4. Save Larry the Lobster

In 1983, Saturday Night Live ran a sketch in which Eddie Murphy held up "Larry the Lobster" and let viewers call a 900 number to decide whether or not he would boil the tasty crustacean. The voters apparently had a soft sport for Larry and narrowly voted to save him from the pot. (Murphy boiled the lobster anyway.)

5. Follow D.J Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince

D.J. Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith spent a lot of their time in the late '80s touring and recording albums, but what else were they doing? In 1989 the duo was pulling in over 100,000 calls a week to hear a series of daily two-minute messages about their wacky adventures. According to a contemporary New York Times report, the duo's annual income from their hotline alone was "well into six figures."

6. Pick Your President

NBC allowed voters to call a 900 number to show their preference for Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan during the 1980 presidential debate. The results were the same as in the actual election: the audience preferred Reagan. Actual pollsters were distressed about these widely reported results since the poll's sample wasn't randomly selected, and in 1983 NBC's Nightline quit using the unscientific 900-number-driven polls.

7. Learn the Future

If you were watching TV in the 1990s, it was tough to avoid Dionne Warwick's Psychic Friends Network and its ubiquitous cheesy commercials. Check out this great example with The Price is Right announcer Rod Roddy:

Although the Psychic Friends Network was a target for all sots of parody and mockery, it also took in loads of cash; at its peak the 900 number's annual gross was over $100 million. However, eventually bad luck, management blunders, and competition from the Miss Cleos of the world drove the company into bankruptcy.

8. Script The A-Team

How could NBC possibly improve on the perfection of The A-Team? By letting the viewers vote for an episode's ending. In November 1986 the show featured an episode in which Hannibal and the team brought a political-adviser-turned-felon played by Jeff Corey back to the States.

Throughout the episode, there were hints that the team's target may have been "Faceman" Peck's long-lost father. NBC then charged viewers 50 cents to call a 900 number that allowed them vote on whether or not the show should include a revelation about Face's paternity. Viewers voted to have the political adviser be Face's father.

9. DIAL JOSE


After Jose Canseco became baseball's first player to ever hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in a season en route to winning the 1988 AL MVP, he became an icon to sports fans and teenage girls alike. In 1989 Canseco debuted "DIAL JOSE," a 900 number on which he opined about everything from baseball to the trappings of fame. In its first two months of operation, the hotline raked in over $500,000. Canseco reportedly pocketed a 75-percent cut of that revenue. The 900 number's administrators later told the press, "Jose was a great success with our usual target audience -- 14- to 18-year-old girls. They wanted to hear what he had to say."

10. Listen in on the Pit Crew

In the early 1990s, open-wheel racing fans could listen in on the banter between Indy 500 drivers and their pit crews for $1.50 a minute. Since most of the discussion was full of highly technical jargon, the line also had a commentator that translated the lingo for the average fan. The Wall Street Journal commented, "The line delivers, but much of the chat is fuzzy."

11. Talk to Kitty, the First Lady of Basketball

Phone sex and gambling tips obviously had big places in the 900 number landscape. Kitty, the First Lady of Basketball, managed to combine both worlds. For $3 a minute callers got sports betting advice from a sultry-voiced woman. As the Philadelphia Inquirer noted in 1991, though, Kitty's real brilliance was that she stretched out her recordings so well; callers didn't actually receive any sexy betting advice until the 11-minute mark, at which point they were already $33 in the bag.

12. Chat With All Sorts of Wrestlers

During the '80s and '90s, grappling skills were only part of what made a successful professional wrestler. The majority of the skill set apparently revolved around having your own 900 number. Hulk Hogan's 1-900-454-HULK was the top grossing 900 number during the early '90s, and everyone from Mean Gene Okerlund to Captain Lou Albano had their own hotline for behind-the-scenes scoops and interviews. Here's Captain Lou shilling for his:

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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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]

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