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11 "Modern Antiques" Kids Today Have Never Seen

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Even though I'm fairly ancient, I've never seen a Model T outside of a classic auto show. So I realize that there are many things that have been obsolete since the elastic waistband was invented and would confound anyone under age 70. But what about some common items that have come and gone within the last 30 or so years? See how many of these you recognize, and how many of them would puzzle your kids or grandkids.

1. 45 rpm Record Adapter

Seven-inch singles produced in the US had a large half-dollar size hole in the center, unlike the tiny hole punched in LPs that fit conveniently onto a turntable spindle. This large hole tradition was originally instituted in order to accommodate the mechanism inside a jukebox. Rather than making a separate version for home use, the simple solution was to sell adapters that popped into the center of a 45, making it playable on a standard record player. These gadgets were usually found in a bin near the checkout at every record store, a dozen or so for a dollar.

2. Skate Key


Those good ol' fashioned metal roller skates that strapped onto your shoes were useless if you didn't have a skate key on hand to adjust them. The hexagonal loop on top was used to turn the bolt that adjusted the length of the skate and the tubular end fit on the pin that tightened the toe grips. The long narrow hole in the middle? Why, that was for stringing a shoelace through so you could wear the key around your neck while skating.

3. Church Key



Many a barbecue and tailgate party was ruined in the pre-pop top days when it was discovered that no one had remembered to bring a church key to the proceedings. The pointy end punctured beer (and soda pop) cans open – one hole for pouring, one for a vent. The rounded end was used to remove bottle caps – twist-off crown caps weren't invented until the 1960s, and even then it took some years for breweries to start using them on their products. But then again, most veteran party animals of that era knew how to open a beer bottle on a car bumper or table edge in an emergency.

4. Self-Service Tube Tester

Household electronics have become as disposable as Pampers in recent years; if your flat screen television stops working, it's usually just as cheap to buy a new one as to have the old one repaired. But 30-plus years ago when a TV went on the fritz you called the TV Repair Man. He was so ubiquitous that he made house calls, but his services were expensive (and today's Cable Guy has taken the TV Repair Man's vague "I'll be there sometime between X and Y o'clock" promise to a new level). Since a good percentage of the TV malfunctions back then were due to malfunctioning vacuum tubes, DIY Dads started diagnosing and replacing the tubes on their own, saving both time and money. Almost every drugstore, hardware store, and even grocery store had a self-service tube testing machine stashed among the gumball and cigarette machines. Dad (or Mom or whoever) simply brought whichever tubes he thought suspect and tested them on the machine to see whether they were functional. If the tube in question was kaput, there was a wide selection of brand new tubes stocked in the cabinet underneath the machine available for purchase.

5. Pull Tabs

In between cans requiring a church key and today's pop tops there were pull tab soda and beer cans. The convenience of not requiring an opener was revolutionary, but the innovation came with a downfall: a new type of litter. Instead of disposing of their pull tabs responsibly, many folks simply discarded them on the ground before chugging away. Walking barefoot on the beach in the 1960s and '70s was often something of an obstacle course; those tabs weren't always immediately visible, but they were razor-sharp, and savvy sunbathers included Band-Aids in their picnic baskets for the inevitable sliced toe.

6. Fotomat Booth


The abandoned hut as shown in the right photo is still a frequent sight in the parking lots of older shopping malls across the country. Some of them were re-purposed for a while, but let's face it – there's not much you can do with a form-fitting booth situated miles from the nearest bathroom. Back when cameras still used actual film, and before drugstores offered one hour photo developing, Fotomat was the convenient method of getting your pictures back within 24 hours. You didn't even have to get out of your car (this was at a time when fast-food drive-through windows were still few and far between).

7. Motel Room Wall-Mounted Bottle Opener

Some older roadside accommodations still have a bottle opener mounted on the bathroom wall, but a lot of the guests in those cases are stumped enough to ask the front desk, "What the heck is that thing?" We refer you back to the bottle-opening end of the church key and further explain that pop machines ("soda machines" to you heathens) at most motels in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s dispensed pop the way God intended – ice cold in 10-ounce glass bottles with a small ring of ice floating in the neck. There was a bottle opener included on the machine, but a lot of folks preferred to wait until they returned to the sanctuary of their room before they popped the cap off and enjoyed that first refreshing sip. And then there were those (wink-wink) who eschewed the pop machine but traveled instead with a cooler full of beer. That's why the opener was usually mounted in the bathroom – all that beverage spillage was easier to mop up off a tile floor rather than have it soak into the carpeted areas of the room.

8. Milk Chute


Many suburban houses built prior to 1960 had a built-in pass-through door commonly referred to as a "milk chute." This was to accommodate the neighborhood milkman, who still made daily runs door-to-door. The milk chute allowed him to leave his goods in a protected area, and Mom could also leave his money inside, freeing her up from having to wait at home for the milk delivery (see TV Repairman above) all day. And as any child who grew up in this era knows, the milk chute was a necessary means of ingress when either Mom or Dad forgot their house key; the smallest kid in the family had to shimmy through that opening and then go open the back door. (And even though it seemed funny at the time, parents were not pleased when you playfully called out from inside, "What will you give me if I let you in?")

9. No-Draft Window

At one time this small triangular window was standard equipment on every American automobile. Some folks called it the "no-draft" (its official name), some called it the "vent," and others (including my Mom) called it the "wing." Whatever the name, the purpose was the same: in those days when air conditioning was a very expensive option and opening the main driver side and passenger windows caused too much turbulence (not to mention noise) the no-draft provided quiet yet efficient air circulation while driving during warm weather.

10. Green Stamps

TV-Holics certainly recall that first season episode of The Brady Bunch in which the kids were fighting over Checker Trading Stamps. When that episode was originally filmed, trading stamps were all the rage, and S&H Green Stamps led the pack. Pasting Green Stamps into books was how families spent their evenings before scratch-off lottery tickets were invented, and unlike the lottery, Green Stamp premiums were within reach if you purchased enough groceries or gasoline. The "We Give Green Stamps" enticement was a major boon for merchants; there were many consumers who decided "where to buy" solely on the basis of Green Stamp giveaway. And the rewards were great; your average Green Stamp redemption center had everything from home appliances to musical instruments to furniture available if you'd filled X amount (actually more like XXXX amount) of books.

11. Typewriter Eraser


I recall a day, maybe a dozen years ago, when a young new hire at our office was browsing through the closet that contained various supplies (and which probably had not been thoroughly cleaned since the Carter Administration) and approached me asking, "What is this weird thing?" What she held in her hand was a typewriter eraser, a pencil-like device that had a gritty rubber eraser at one end and a brush at the other. Even after White-Out and correction tape were commonly available, neither worked well on onion skin (a type of very thin paper regularly used for multiple carbon copies...perhaps we need to add a twelfth item to this list...) and typewriter erasers were still a necessity. The abrasive end was used like a regular pencil eraser, and then the typist brushed away the resultant debris with the bristle end.
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'Fess up – how many of these items did you recognize strictly from the photo? How many have you never seen? Feel free to test your friends, family members, and co-workers!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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