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6 Big Events That Were Upstaged

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Here are some major events that passed under the radar because, on the same day, something even greater (or at least, more noticeable) was happening. In some cases, the event might not have grabbed our attention anyway, but has proven its worth in hindsight.

1. August 5, 1914: Introducing"¦ Traffic Lights

Early in the twentieth century, new inventions would often be big news, as people excitedly paid attention to the technology that would soon change their lives. The installation of the first electric traffic lights in Cleveland was a good example "“ or it would have been, except that the previous day, Germany had invaded Belgium. In response, Great Britain declared war on Germany, and World War I was under way. Though the US wouldn't join the war until 1917, all eyes were turned to Europe. For the record, those historic traffic lights, designed by James Hoge, had only two colors: red and green.

2. October 25, 1929: Senator Fall goes down

Political corruption in America was nothing new even in 1929, but it was unprecedented for a Presidential cabinet member to be sent to prison for his actions in office. In 1929, however, Albert B. Fall, Secretary of the Interior under President Harding, was convicted of bribery for his role in the Teapot Dome scandal. Fall had accepted generous bribes from oil executives Edward Doheny and Harry Sinclair, in return for which he had granted them control of U.S. Navy petroleum reserves at Teapot Dome in Wyoming.

The subsequent investigation had shamed Fall. The experience could have been even more humiliating, however, except for the fact he was convicted a day after Black Thursday, when 13 million shares changed hands on Wall Street. Over the next few days, as Fall adjusted to life in prison, investors (and most other citizens) had more pressing problems, as the notorious Wall Street Crash wiped out more than $30 billion from the New York Stock Exchange (ten times greater than the annual budget of the federal government). Fall was released from jail after a year, to find himself heavily in debt and unemployable, in the Great Depression.

3. September 2, 1945: The Birth of Communist Vietnam

When General MacArthur accepted the unconditional surrender of the Japanese on the U.S.S. Missouri, it was a time of celebration: the end of World War II. (Japan's Emperor Hirohito had announced the surrender a few weeks earlier, but the treaty made it official.)

Given these circumstances, it was forgivable that few people noticed, in another part of Asia, as communist Chairman Hồ Chí Minh read another momentous document: the Declaration of Independence of Vietnam (now renamed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam), declaring Vietnam independent from France. This was followed by an upsurge in violence between rival Vietnamese factions and French forces, forcing the British commander, General Sir Douglas Gracey, to declare martial law.

Despite negotiations, the conflict would continue "“ especially after 1950, when China and the Soviet Union backed Hồ's government. Eventually, it would result in the Vietnam War, which led to millions of deaths. So on the day that one major conflict ended, the seeds were sown for another.

4. November 22, 1963: The Rise of Beatlemania

In the mid-1960s, it took a lot to upstage the Beatles. Tragically, one of the few people to achieve this dubious feat was President John F. Kennedy, whose assassination in Dallas happened on the same day that, in Britain, the Beatles released their second album, With The Beatles.


Music historians believe that it forever changed rock albums, using songs hand-picked to complement each other (rather than a disparate collection of singles, B-sides and cover versions, as was the usual practice). The best songs included "I Wanna Be Your Man" (which also became the Rolling Stones' first hit song), "Hold Me Tight" and "It Won't Be Long." The next year, with Beatlemania taking over the world, it became the first Beatles album available in the US "“ with a new title (Meet the Beatles) and a few replacement tracks "“ like "I Want to Hold Your Hand," which didn't make the original album because it was recorded as a single.

5. February 14, 1989: The GPS lifts off

Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini had a nasty Valentine's Day message for British author Salman Rushdie in 1989. After Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses, was accused of blaspheming Islam, Khomeini decreed that the author "and all those involved in its publication" were sentenced to death. It was a shocking message to the world (and fortunately, one that has never been carried out).

But meanwhile, something of far greater long-term effect was happening in Cape Canaveral, where the first of 24 satellites of the Global Positioning System were placed into orbit. The GPS, of course, has since become a fact of life. At the time, however, it barely raised an eyebrow.

6. June 4, 1989: Quite a few things

Have you ever had one of those days when everything happens? Take June 4, 1989 "“ the day the world learned Ayatollah Khomeini had died. Though he had provoked headlines four months earlier for his fatwa on Salman Rushdie (and had caused many more headlines over the past decade), the death of America's public enemy number one was not the biggest story of the day in most western media. Nor were the first partially free elections in Poland, won by Lech Walesa and his Solidarność (solidarity) party. And nor was a gas explosion in Ufa, Russia, which derailed two trains, killing 575 people (including many children setting off for their summer holidays).

On most other days, any of these stories would have easily been front page news. However, on the same day, the Chinese Government decided to teach a lesson to student pro-democracy demonstrators. Up to 2,600 people were thought to be dead, and 10,000 injured, when tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, firing indiscriminately on the demonstrators. It was unexpected, shocking, and upstaged any other major world events on that incredible day.

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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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