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10 Headlines from 9/11/01

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We spent the summer of 2001 chastising Gary Condit, mourning Mr. Belvedere, and pardoning Microsoft. But on the second Tuesday of September, a mere twenty months after widespread wisecracks about the world ending on Y2K, it felt like the world did. I've been reading through the online archives of The New York Times from September 11, 2001, to see what was in the news the morning of the attacks. Here are some of the headlines:

1. Taliban Suicide Bombers Target Deposed Afghan Leaders

"If the would-be assassins were indeed Arabs, as the United Front asserted, the fact would lend credibility to those who contend that foreigners, including Osama bin Laden, are playing an ever bigger decision-making role among the Taliban."

2. Washington: Rumsfeld Attacks Bureaucracy

"Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that he was declaring war on bureaucracy in the Pentagon and that he wanted to combine some civilian and military staffs, cut duplication in the military services and shift some jobs to the private sector."

3. Senator Joe Biden attacks President Bush on Missile Defense

"Mr. Biden has fastened onto missile defense as the centerpiece of his critique of Bush foreign policy. In part, that is because the system is almost the sole focus of the administration's foreign policy... 'Are we willing to end four decades of arms control agreements, and go it alone, a kind of bully nation, sometimes a little wrongheaded, but ready to make unilateral decisions in what we perceive to be our self-interest?' Mr. Biden said in his speech at the National Press Club."

4. Michael Jordan to Unretire (Again)?

"Jordan is either getting ready to return to the N.B.A. at the age of 38 or he is setting up the sports world for a letdown of legendary proportion. Either way, the drama builds. Speaking with three reporters, Jordan said he was less than 10 days away from a news conference in Washington announcing his decision."

5. Grand Jury Declines Request For Inquiry into Condit Matter

"A grand jury has rejected a flight attendant's request that it investigate her complaint that Representative Gary A. Condit obstructed justice by asking her to sign an affidavit falsely stating that they did not have an affair....Anne Marie Smith, 40, said that she and Mr. Condit had a 10-month romance and that his intermediaries tried to get her to sign an affidavit denying the affair....Ms. Smith's link with Mr. Condit became public after the disappearance in Washington of Chandra Ann Levy, a 24-year-old government intern from Modesto, on May 1. Mr. Condit, 53, is not considered a suspect in the disappearance, but he acknowledged having had a relationship with Ms. Levy."

6. Mayoral Candidates Crisscross City Seeking Last Few Votes

"The six major candidates running to succeed Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani ranged across the city yesterday in the final burst of politicking before the polls open today. Dodging late summer downpours, the candidates hit neighborhoods where they thought they might be able to eek out just a few more votes. Crossing and crisscrossing the boroughs -- sometimes missing one anothers' campaigns by just minutes -- it seemed as though the six candidates were out to shake every hand in the city."

7. Broncos Win Game, Lose Receiver

"The New York Giants did not upset the festive Denver atmosphere as the Broncos christened their noisy new home with a loud and thorough 31-20 rout. The game's outcome seem to hinge on a gruesome injury to Denver's Pro Bowl wide receiver Ed McCaffrey, who broke his lower left leg early in the third quarter."

8. Disco Near Auschwitz to Close

"The owner of a building now used as a disco but once a tannery where Nazis sorted the luggage and clothes of Jews at Auschwitz said he would not renew the club's lease when it expires in November."

9. U.S. Blacklists Paramilitaries in Colombia

"Being put on the State Department list of terrorist groups means that financial support for the organization is illegal. The action also makes it easier for the United States to seize assets, an important factor because investigators here estimate that the paramilitary groups have hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign bank accounts."

10. Thomas Friedman on Terror in Israel

"You drive south...and there is another long concrete wall blocking snipers from hitting Gilo, but also sealing in Gilo. There are Hebrew posters all over this wall that read: 'The New Middle East.' Some Israeli coffee shops now have security guards at the door to deter suicide bombers."

See previous installments of 'The First Time News Was Fit To Print.'

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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