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5 Important Fifties Events Nobody Noticed in the Fifties

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We all know about Elvis, McCarthyism, Sputnik, the Korean War, Rosa Parks’ fateful bus ride, and Castro taking over Cuba – defining moments of the 1950s. In the decade itself, everyone was talking about now-forgotten moments like the Suez crisis, the “Busby Babes” plane crash and the hula-hoop craze. But then there were a few big events in the decade that hardly anyone noticed at the time. Here are just five of them…

1. Rocket ‘88’ launches (1951)

The first rock’n’roll song? We don’t want to start any arguments here, but we can safely say that it wasn’t anything by Elvis, or even "Rock Around the Clock." Jackie Brenston’s rocking ode to wild nights in an eight-cylinder Oldsmobile, released three years before Elvis’s first record, made it clear that a new style of music had arrived. At the time, of course, it was unknown just how big this new music would become. It was a Billboard #1 hit, turning Chicago’s Chess Records into a major blues and R&B label. (They would soon record Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and others.) The song was covered later that year by a yokel from small-town Pennsylvania called Bill Haley, who would go on to become the first rock’n’roll superstar with songs like "Shake Rattle and Roll" and "Rock Around the Clock." Brenston, a singer and saxophone player in Ike Turner’s band, had no other solo hits, dying in 1979 at age 49.

2. Dawn of the electronic brain (1954)

International Business Machines (IBM) had made their name (among science geeks, at least) in the 1940s, constructing huge mainframe machines for scientific laboratories. But in May 1954, they announced the development of a model “electronic brain” for business use. Though it sounded like something from one of the scary sci-fi movies of the time (and would later strike fear into many workers, afraid of losing their jobs in the automated workplace), it was really the dawn of the computer revolution. With a central logic unit, processing information from reels of magnetic tape (each able to hold as much information as a large city phone-book), these new machines could do 10 million arithmetical operations in an hour. Nonetheless, IBM had low expectations for sales of these unwieldy devices, planning to rent them instead. Even this would cost $25,000 a month – a lot of money in 1954. However, the orders were already proving Thomas J. Watson wrong. In 1943, the 69-year-old IBM chairman and sales genius had predicted “a world market for maybe five computers.”

3. The coup of Guatemala (1954)

In one of the American military’s more dubious episodes, a CIA-financed coup in Guatemala overthrew the popularly elected government of President Jacobo Árbenz. Officially, it was to combat a plan by Árbenz to align Guatemala with the Soviet Bloc. However, this plan was disputed. The true reason may have been slightly less ideological. Árbenz’ land reform had included nationalizing the property of the United Fruit Company, which had friends in high places. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ law firm had written the contracts with Guatemala, 20 years earlier. CIA director Allen Dulles had been president of United Fruit, and his predecessor at the CIA, General Walter Bedell Smith, went on to become the company’s vice-president. Árbenz’ government was replaced by a military junta, and Árbenz spent the rest of his life in exile. The coup went almost unnoticed in America at the time, and is still not widely known. Yet it might well have been a case of a corporation causing the violent end of a government.

4. Testing the pill (1956)

You probably think that – along with Twister and concept albums – the oral contraceptive pill was one of the great inventions of the swinging sixties. In fact, it was a product of the more famously staid and conservative fifties. Developed by a team of biologists led by Gregory Pincus, it was first tested in Puerto Rico April 1956. The Food and Drug Administration did not approve the marketing of the pill until 1960, just in time for it to be a symbol of sixties freedom. Still, when Pincus died in 1967 (in the middle of the peace-and-love era), he went almost unknown. Even today, he’s not exactly a household name.

5. Tibet strikes back (1956)

Chinese troops invaded Tibet in 1950, forcing the leaders to sign the ironically named “Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet” (that’s the short title), in which Tibetan delegates agreed to recognize Chinese authority. Later, human rights activists would suggest that this was one of China’s worst human rights violations, with the death estimates ranging from 400,000 to 1.2 million. The Tibetans fought back in 1956, guided by prominent exiles and supported by the CIA. By July 1958, 50,000 Chinese troops had died in the conflict. However, to maintain good (or at least, steady) relations with China, other nations did not officially recognize their struggle, and the tide soon turned against the insurgency. In March 1959, the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, was forced to flee his homeland disguised as a servant. “There was nothing I could do for my people if I stayed,” he later said. Chinese soldiers were ordered to capture him alive, as his death would cause even the most peaceful Tibetans to rise against them. He evaded capture, escaping to Dharamsala in India, where he would establish a democratic alternative government and become a symbol of peace and non-violent liberation, winning far more fame and promotion for his cause in exile than he had ever won in Tibet.


Mark Juddery is an author and historian based in Australia. His latest book, Overrated: The 50 Most Overhyped Things in History (Perigree), is already causing a stir. You can order it from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. You can see a slideshow excerpt from the book, and you can argue with Mark's choices (or suggest new ones) on his blog. Mark offers one tip: If you want to say "This book is overrated"... it's been done.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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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]

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