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11 Times TIME's Person of the Year Wasn't Really a Person

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TIME has named The Ebola Fighters the 2014 Person of the Year. Some years, they don't narrow it down to one person (or choose a person at all). Here's a look at the generic people, groups of people, and things that also have received this honor.

1. The Computer, 1982

One of the best parts about the article naming the computer the "Machine of the Year" is reading it now, 30 years later. One man, they said, figured out how he could use a computer to administer anesthesia during surgery; the band Earth, Wind and Fire even used one to explode smoke bombs during their shows. Behold, a computer convention in Las Vegas from 1982:

In the cavernous Las Vegas Convention Center a month ago, more than 1,000 computer companies large and small were showing off their wares, their floppy discs and disc drives, joy sticks and modems, to a mob of some 50,000 buyers, middlemen and assorted technology buffs.

Look! Here is Hewlett-Packard's HP9000, on which you can sketch a new airplane, say, and immediately see the results in 3-D through holograph imaging; here is how the Votan can answer and act on a telephone call in the middle of the night from a salesman on the other side of the country; here is the Olivetti M20 that entertains bystanders by drawing garishly colored pictures of Marilyn Monroe; here is a program designed by The Alien Group that enables an Atari computer to say aloud anything typed on its keyboard in any language. It also sings, in a buzzing humanoid voice, Amazing Grace and When I'm 64 or anything else that anyone wants to teach it.

2. The Middle Americans, 1969

Interestingly, TIME’s idea of Middle America includes one H. Ross Perot:

“The Middle Americans tend to be grouped in the nation's heartland more than on its coasts. But they live in Queens, N.Y., and Van Nuys, Calif., as well as in Skokie and Chillicothe. They tend toward the middle-aged and the middlebrow. They are defined as much by what they are not as by what they are. As a rule, they are not the poor or the rich. Still, many wealthy business executives are Middle Americans. H. Ross Perot, the Texas millionaire who organized a group called 'United We Stand Inc.' to support the President on the war, is an example.”

3. The Endangered Earth, 1988

TIME acknowledged their unorthodox “Man of the Year” post right here in the story’s headline: “What on EARTH are we doing?” After a year of hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts and floods, it was apparently time to ask – and to name the first “Planet of the Year.”

4. The American Fighting-Man, 1950

“He has been called soft and tough, resourceful and unskilled, unbelievably brave and unbelievably timid, thoroughly disciplined and scornful of discipline. One way or another, all of these generalizations are valid. He is a peculiar soldier, product of a peculiar country. His two outstanding characteristics seem to be contradictory. He is more of an individualist than soldiers of other nations, and at the same time he is far more conscious of, and dependent on, teamwork. He fights as he lives, a part of a vast, complicated machine—but a thinking, deciding part, not an inert cog.”

5. American Scientists, 1960

Unlike the ambiguous “American Fighting-Man,” this “Man” of the Year had names. Among those specifically mentioned in the article were chemist Linus Pauling, physicist Edward Teller, geneticist George Beadle and virologist John Enders.

“It has been said, almost 90% of all the scientists that the world has ever produced are alive today. By the very nature of that curve, 1960 was the richest of all scientific years, and the years ahead must be even more fruitful,” the magazine predicted.

6. Baby Boomers, or “The Inheritors,” 1966

Though the title was given to the generation overall, a few famous names were singled out as examples: 23-year-old chess genius Bobby Fischer, 19-year-old world record miler Jim Ryun, 24-year-old folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie, 20-year-old artist Jamie Wyeth, 25-year-old actress Julie Christie, among others.

7. American Women, 1975

Women of 1975 included Betty Ford, Billie Jean King, feminist Susan Brownmiller and Carol Sutton, the first female editor of a major daily newspaper (Louisville’s Courier-Journal).

8. The Peacemakers, 1993

Also known as Yasser Arafat, F.W. de Klerk, Nelson Mandela and Yitzhak Rabin, the Peacemakers had a busy ’93. Rabin and Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn as Bill Clinton looked on, while Mandela and de Klerk worked tirelessly toward a new South Africa. The latter pair won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 while Arafat and Rabin, along with Shimon Peres, won in 1994.

9. The Good Samaritans, 2005

You’re probably more familiar with the Good Samaritans as Bono and Bill and Melinda Gates. TIME recognized the unlikely trio for their efforts toward improving world health.

“These are not the people you expect to come to the rescue. Rock stars are designed to be shiny, shallow creatures, furloughed from reality for all time. Billionaires are even more removed, nestled atop fantastic wealth where they never again have to place their own calls or defrost dinner or fly commercial. So Bono spends several thousand dollars at a restaurant for a nice Pinot Noir, and Bill Gates, the great predator of the Internet age, has a trampoline room in his $100 million house. It makes you think that if these guys can decide to make it their mission to save the world, partner with people they would never otherwise meet, care about causes that are not sexy or dignified in the ways that celebrities normally require, then no one really has a good excuse anymore for just staying on the sidelines and watching.”

10. The Protester, 2011

"No one could have known that when a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire in a public square, it would incite protests that would topple dictators and start a global wave of dissent. In 2011, protesters didn't just voice their complaints; they changed the world.

11. You, 2006

Collective groan. The idea of making “You” the Person of the Year was roundly panned by the very people the concept was attempting to honor: creators of user-generated content on the Internet. Peter Sagal of NPR’s Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me! commented that if “we” actually controlled the media, “we would have picked a much better choice for the Person of the Year issue."

This post originally appeared in 2011.

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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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