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Not-So-Famous Firsts: Infant Edition

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This edition of Not-So-Famous Firsts is dedicated to Mangesh's wife Lizzie and Jason's wife Ellen, who are both infanticipating and are slated to deliver their respective bundles of joy on or around September 14. Here’s a “hang in there!” to both them and all the other aching-back and swollen-ankled moms-to-be among our Loyal Readers!

First Baby Born in Antarctica

The first human born on the continent of Antarctica was Emilio Marcos Palma (pictured at age 30), who was born at Argentine army’s Esperanza Base near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula on January 7, 1978. His birth was not happenstance, however; at that time Britain, Chile and Argentina (all signatories to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty) were competing to affirm sovereignty of the icy island. One way for a government to demonstrate its commitment and assert an aura of authority was to populate the land with native-born citizens. Captain Jorge Emilio Palma was the head of the Argentine army detachment at the base and just happened to have a pregnant wife back at home. The Argentinean government airlifted SÍlvia Morella de Palma, who was seven months along, to Antarctica specifically for the purpose of her producing the first natural-born Antarctican citizen.

Baby’s First Ride Home

A lot of infants born prior to the mid-1960s rode home from the hospital cradled in nothing more secure than Mommy’s arms. Today all 50 states have laws regarding child safety seats in automobiles. The very first specialized child car seats appeared on the market in 1898, but the “safety” angle at that time was aimed toward the driver and not Baby. Such “restraints” were little more than a drawstring sack that contained Junior so he didn’t crawl around or flail his little arms and legs and distract the person in the driver’s seat.

In 1933 the Bunny Bear Company introduced a car seat for babies that fastened to the rear seat and elevated Baby so that the driver could keep an eye on him in the rear-view mirror.

First IVF Baby

When the story of Louise Brown’s ground-breaking conception and birth was made public, she was regularly referred to in the media as the world’s first “test tube baby,” despite the fact that she was technically conceived in a Petri dish. Lesley and John Brown of Manchester, England, had spent almost 10 years trying to have a baby with no success, which sent them to a fertility specialist.

It was determined that a 1970 surgery Lesley had undergone to remedy blocked Fallopian tubes had left her infertile. They appealed to Dr. Patrick Steptoe (an OB/GYN) and his associate Robert Edwards (a physiologist), who had been experimenting with in vitro fertilization. The procedure was still extremely experimental (the first attempts at implanting the embryo had resulted in ectopic pregnancies in his volunteer mothers), so the Browns were subject to intense media scrutiny. Louise Joy Brown, healthy and howling, was born on July 25, 1978, via C-section because Lesley had developed toxemia. Dr. Steptoe had the entire procedure filmed, including intrusive camera glimpses into Mrs. Brown’s insides, just to prove to naysayers that her Fallopian tubes were not intact.

In 2007, Louise Brown Mullinder gave birth to a healthy son who was conceived naturally, putting to rest any fears about IVF babies having genetic fertility issues.

First TV Guide Cover Baby

It’s safe to say that just about everybody with a television set in the early 1950s loved Lucy. Shortly after its October 1951 premiere, I Love Lucy became the most-watched program in the United States, and it maintained that distinction during the first four years of its six-year run.

Had it not been for those impressive Nielsen ratings, combined with the tenacity of Desi Arnaz, the series’ star might have been mostly absent (or hidden behind furniture) through much of the second season. Lucille Ball was pregnant with her second child, and even though most adult TV viewers certainly knew where babies came from it was taboo at the time to show a visibly pregnant woman on the small screen. After much behind-the-scenes panic and negotiation the network decided to “allow” Lucy Ricardo to be shown in a family way. Viewers lapped up the so-called “pregnancy episodes” and the show where Lucy gave birth received an amazing 71.8 rating and 92 share when it aired Monday evening, January 19, 1953. (Of course, Lucille Ball, always the trouper, did her part to pique the hysteria by giving birth to Desiderio Alberto Arnaz IV earlier that day.)

The writers had already decided early in the season that the Ricardos would have a boy, and thus there were marketing deals for Little Ricky dolls, nursery sets, baby clothes, etc., already in place by the time Lucy was wheeled into the delivery room. When TV Guide published its inaugural issue on April 3, 1953, its cover featured young Desi Arnaz Jr. along with the banner “Lucy’s $50,000,000 Baby.”

First BART Baby

San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) service has been hauling commuters of all ages since 1972, but their youngest rider boarded the train most unexpectedly on July 21, 1996. Bernadette Ortiz went into labor earlier that day, and she and her husband, Steven Ehler, and their 22-month old son William, boarded the train in Richmond with plans to catch a taxi at the South Hayward station to get to St. Rose Hospital. Their car had been stolen recently, but since Bernadette had already had one baby she felt that she was familiar enough with the symptoms to know that they had plenty of time to reach the hospital. Her in utero daughter had other ideas, though, and by the time they were approaching the San Leandro station, Bernadette had reached the moment of truth. Luckily, fellow passenger Ignacio Aceves had recently accompanied his sister to her Lamaze classes, and he stepped in to assist in the unusual birth. Paramedics arrived just as the baby’s head emerged and they completed the task of bringing 7 pound, 2 ounce Stefany AnnMarie Ehler into the world.

BART officials presented baby Stefany with not only a lovely bouquet of flowers, but also a lifetime transit pass.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.