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11 Memorable Images from the 1970s

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If I were forced to pick one decade to live in forever, I’d pick the ‘70s. While the times were full of upheaval, long gas lines, nuclear meltdowns and ugly wars, it was really the last decade before consumerism/commercialism started accosting us at every available opportunity. It was the last decade before professional sports contracts went through the stratosphere. Music was still bought on vinyl for the most part, UHF was still a part of our day-to-day dialings (who remembers trying to watch inappropriate movies with a line through the middle of the screen?), emergency breakthroughs were the hackers incipient call waitings, and flattering fashions like bell bottoms hadn’t yet given way to parachute pants. Life was slower and economies weren’t yet fully globalized, which meant things were simpler. I’m sure a whole host of folks are jumping straight for the comments now to point out how naive some of what I’ve just written is, but that was another great thing about the ‘70s: as a nation, we were still fairly naive and simple, for better, for worse. The 1970s were pre-AIDS, pre-cellphone, and restaurant hostesses still asked “smoking or non?” If you walked into a record store like Peaches, for instance, your choices were Rock, Blues, Jazz, Classical, Show Tunes and Pop. Music and movies weren’t yet marketed to children at every opportunity and the slower pace of life was well-suited to reading sometimes 10-20 page books called liner notes that came inside double and triple albums. Lack of choice made things simpler, though that had its downside too because you were basically stuck with the 3 big television networks’ daily programming unless you could afford cable, which still only had two or three movie channels (Anyone remember Prism?!) a Laser Disc machine or Betamax tapes. Speaking of TV, simpler times meant stations still signed off at 1 or 2am with our national anthem before going to snow. And no one complained! CNN was lurking around the corner, but as far as anyone was concerned in the ‘70s, news only happened at 6 and 11 (pictures at 11!).

These memories, of course, are largely personal. So don’t waste your breath attacking me in the comments today folks. I’m sure you have your own, highly subjective opinion of the ‘70s and that many people disagree with me. After all, Watergate was so disillusioning for so many, how could I call society still naive when that was 1974? What we CAN agree on, however, are the big events and images that paint a visual picture of what the decade was about. Here are 11 that really stick with me day in, day out.

1. May, 1970

Neil Young of CSNY summed the Kent State tragedy up when he sang

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

2. September, 1972


During the “Munich Massacre,” 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage and eventually killed by the Palestinian group Black September.

3. May, 1972


Magnavox Odyssey, the first commercially available video game console was released on May 24, 1972. The gaming world would never be the same again.

4. April, 1973

The World Trade Center complex opened on April 4, 1973. The twin towers were the tallest structures in the world until the Sears Tower was built in Chicago later that year.

5. August, 1974


After the Watergate scandal, Nixon resigns.

6. May, 1977


Produced with a budget of (only!) $11 million and released, the original Star Wars film earned $460 million in the United States and $337 million overseas, surpassing Jaws as the highest-grossing film of all time.

7. December, 1977


Saturday Night Fever epitomized the height of the disco craze and the night-club fashions of the times.

8. December, 1978


More than 10% of the Iranian people marched in anti-shah demonstrations on December 10 and 11, 1978.

9. March, 1979

Three Mile Island was the worst accident in U.S. nuclear power plant history as the partial meltdown released small amounts of radioactive gases and radioactive iodine into the environment.

10. May, 1979


When American Airlines Flight 191 crashed after taking off from O'Hare, all 258 passengers and 13 crew on board were killed, along with two people on the ground. Until 9/11, it was the deadliest air disaster in U.S. history.

11. June, 1979


During the Oil Crisis over the summer of ‘79, cars with a license plate ending in an odd number were only allowed to buy gasoline on odd-numbered days, while even-numbered plate-holders could only purchase gasoline on even-numbered days.

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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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iStock
Animals
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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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