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When the Car Radio Was Introduced, People Freaked Out

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Is texting while driving total insanity or just one more inevitable tide of modern life? (Spoiler alert: It's total insanity.) But was the radio met with similar opposition when it was first introduced to the car?

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In 1930, laws were proposed in Massachusetts and St. Louis to ban radios while driving. According to automotive historian Michael Lamm, “Opponents of car radios argued that they distracted drivers and caused accidents, that tuning them took a driver’s attention away from the road, and that music could lull a driver to sleep.”

Even the Auto Club of New York agreed. In their 1934 poll, 56 percent deemed the car radio a “dangerous distraction.” Arguing the other side was the Radio Manufacturers Association, who pointed out that car radios could be used to warn drivers of inclement weather and bad road conditions, as well as keeping them awake when they got drowsy.

A little history on the car radio: The first one was introduced in 1922 by Chevrolet. It cost a whopping $200, and with an antenna that covered the car’s entire roof, batteries that barely fit under the front seat and two mammoth speakers attached behind the seat, it was about as convenient as taking a live orchestra along for a ride.

By the early 1930s, the less cumbersome built-in Motorola radios were standard features in cars. Later in the decade, push-button tuning and presets helped drivers to select stations without taking their eyes off the road. By 1946, 9 million cars had radios. Thanks to the transistor, both size and price came way down, so that by 1963, 50 million cars – over 60 percent – were outfitted with radios. By then, over one third of America’s radio listening occurred in the car.

And those anti-radio laws? Though a few were signed in small municipalities, they mostly went nowhere. Unlike the current anti-texting laws.

Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia have now banned text messaging while driving. And the tickets are already piling up. In New York last year, over 5,000 texting tickets have been written (each carries a $150 fine plus two points).

Common sense tells us that texting while driving is hazardous. Since it is a relatively new phenomenon, its correlation to accidents is still under study. But here are some statistics that you may find more OMFG than LOL:

According to tests at the University of Utah, a driver is 4 times more likely to cause an accident while driving drunk or talking on a cell phone. And 8 times more likely to cause an accident while texting.
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A 2009 study conducted by Car and Driver magazine measured two drivers’ reaction times to the onset of a simulated brake light on their front windshields. The unimpaired driver took .45 seconds to brake and traveled 4 feet before stopping. The texting driver took .57 seconds to brake and traveled 41 feet before stopping.
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According to statistics compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 5,870 people died in texting-related car crashes in 2008.
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The same texting-related statistics revealed that 515,000 people were injured in various car crashes in the United States. Around 28 percent of all crashes in 2008 were caused by drivers in the age group of 18 and 29, who admitted to texting while driving.
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But it’s not just young people. The texting-while-driving statistics in 2010 compiled by Pew Research Center revealed that 47 percent of adults resort to texting as compared to 34 percent of teenagers. The same stats revealed that 75 percent of adults resort to phone conversation while driving as compared to 52 percent of teenagers.

Stats aside, is it even relevant to compare car radios and texting? You could argue that for the average American back in the 1930s, operating an automobile was as involved and treacherous as flying a plane. Levers, buttons, gauges, stick shift. Add the extra ball of a radio into that attention-juggling equation, and you were asking for a fender bender.

Eighty years on, the car radio is just another part of the dashboard. But to some, it remains suspect. In 2002, the NHTSA blamed 66% of the 43,000 fatal car crashes on “Playing with the radio or CD.”

Still, there’s a big difference between tuning a radio dial and texting. The first requires one eye and a split second. The other requires both eyes, and several seconds or more. Plus most of your attention.

That so many of us believe that we can handle texting while driving (and full disclosure, I stupidly tried to do it once and nearly rear-ended the car in front of me) is tied to the myth of multi-tasking. Scientists have shown that the brain cannot really focus on multiple tasks simultaneously. What it can do is shift from one to the next with astonishing speed. But car accidents can also happen with equally astonishing speed. Plus, there are many factors beyond our control, not the least of which are other drivers and pedestrians who may also be distracted by anything from drinking coffee to having a conversation to texting. Suddenly, we’re in a world of Mr. Magoos.

With momentum hurtling us toward a federal ban on texting while driving, all of this may soon be beside the point. But knowing of the varied range of Mental Floss readers in age, interests and beliefs, we’d like to know . . .

What do you think?

Note: The original introduction to this story was about me noticing someone texting while they were driving. It described a typical scene, one that I encounter a few times a week. But three days after I turned in this piece, I was nearly killed by some guy who was texting while driving. It was 10 o’clock in the morning. I was returning from the gym. Driving on a side street, I saw the car coming towards me swerve gradually, then fully, into my lane. Though we were both going about 30 mph, it all seemed to be happening in slow motion. As the car got closer, I saw the young guy who was driving, holding his cell phone up on the steering wheel with one hand, while with the other, he was typing. He didn’t see me, or the road in front of him. I laid on the horn, and skidded onto someone’s front lawn to avoid a head-on collision. The guy swerved back into his lane and drove away. It was a case of life imitating mentalfloss.com. Well, better life than death.

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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
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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.

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