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11 Not-So-Famous People We Lost in 2012

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It’s been a solemn year for the deaths of famous and significant people – and as always, many died who were less famous, but should be saluted nonetheless for their contributions to the world. Here are 11 of the lesser-known greats who passed this year.

1. Murray Lender: Bagel Tycoon

Lender's Bagels Historical Images

Murray Lender, son of a Polish baker in Connecticut, took his father’s bagels—the “Jewish English muffin”, as Murray called them—and turned them into a household food, as all-American as apple pie or hot dogs. In 1974, he became president of his father’s shop, Lender’s Bagels, and together with two brothers, expanded the kitchen where they spent their childhoods hand-rolling bagels into a New Haven factory which mass-produced bagels and sent them to 30 states. He promoted bagels (formerly known as a distinctly Jewish fare) across America, re-inventing them as a versatile sandwich bread. The company (now owned by Pinnacle Foods) made $41 million last year, but that’s now only a small part of the American bagel industry. Bagels, after all, are now so much a part of U.S. food culture that people probably assume George Washington ate them.

2. Jim Marshall: The Father of Loud

He might not be as famous as most rock stars, but his name is certainly familiar to rock music fans. Jim Marshall, a drummer and music teacher, opened a music shop in suburban London in 1960, which was frequented by teenage aspiring musicians like Peter Townshend (later of The Who) and Ritchie Blackmore (Deep Purple). At Townshend’s suggestion, Marshall developed the Marshall amplifier in 1962—an amp that was affordable, portable enough to be carried in the back of a car, but loud enough to give Marshall the title “the Father of Loud."  The sound was not as clean as the Fender amps that ruled the market at time, but introduced the “throaty” Marshall sound, which would influence the sound of rock music from then on. Marshall amps became a mainstay of rock concerts from Nirvana to Elton John. In the 1970s, The Who earned the Guinness Record as the loudest band in the world—using Marshall’s classic 100-watt amplifier.

3. Vladka Meed: Heroine of the Polish Resistance

[caption id="attachment_158016" align="aligncenter" width="560" caption="Vladka Meed, center, with First Lady Laura Bush, 2001. /Alex Wong"][/caption]

Vladka Meed’s life as a courier and weapons smuggler for the Jewish resistance in Poland during World War II would make an incredible book—so she wrote it. In 1948, she published On Both Sides of the Wall, one of the first eyewitness accounts of the ghetto and the uprising, and a salute to her toughness. She was one of the hundreds of thousands of Jews systematically rounded up and forced into a filthy, one-square-mile Warsaw ghetto. “Her father died of pneumonia in the ghetto, and her mother and two siblings were deported, to perish at the Treblinka death camp. To remain a human being in the ghetto one had to live in constant defiance, to act illegally,” she recalled. She joined the Jewish Fighting Organization, using forged papers and her fluency in Polish to pose as a Gentile, moving outside the ghetto among the ethnic Polish population. As the resistance force grew, she smuggled homemade dynamite and other weapons into the ghetto for an uprising that launched in April 1943 and lasted 27 days, decimating the ghetto and freeing its prisoners. She later arranged hiding places for the survivors, remaining in Poland until the end of the war. For the next six decades, her writings and lectures revealed more about the horrors of the Polish ghettos, and in 1984 she started a national teacher-training program on the Holocaust, highlighting the role of the Warsaw resistance.

4. Richard B. Scudder: Newspaper Recycling Pioneer

Richard B. Scudder was co-founder of the Denver-based MediaNews Group Inc., one of the largest U.S. newspaper companies, with 57 newspapers in 11 states. However, for those who don’t read journals like The Denver Post or The San Jose Mercury News, he should still be remembered for helping to invent a process allowing newsprint to be recycled. While many people extolling the virtues of internet news have talked about how many trees are knocked down to print the daily papers, it could have been much worse if not for Scudder, who perhaps saved several forests. In the early 1950s, a news dealer suggested a process to remove ink from newsprint so that newspapers could be recycled into quality newsprint. Scudder used his resources to test the process in his office and develop it further, before moving it to the labs. In 1961, he founded the Garden State Paper Co., whose New Jersey mill became among the largest in the world for recycled newspaper.

5. Camilla Williams: America's First Great African-American Soprano

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In 1955, Marian Anderson made headlines as the first African-American singer to appear at New York's prestigious Metropolitan Opera. Nine years earlier, however, Camilla Williams broke down even greater barriers at the New York City Opera, becoming the first African-American woman to appear with a major U.S. opera company. Her performance as Cio-Cio-San in Puccini's Madame Butterfly was well-praised, with The New York Times saying that she displayed “a vividness and subtlety unmatched by any other artist who has assayed the part here in many a year.” She later toured overseas, and was the first black artist to sing a major role with the Vienna State Opera. The daughter of a chauffeur, she was singing at a Baptist church when a Welsh voice teacher came to the segregated town of Danville, Virginia, where she grew up. Though the teacher was assigned to teach at a school for white girls, she decided to teach a group of black girls on the side, and Williams was a star pupil, becoming a music teacher and eventually being offered a scholarship for vocal training. Many African-American blues and rock stars were involved in the civil rights movement, of course, but few opera singers. Williams, however, added a classical presence to concerts in 1963 to raise funds to free jailed civil rights demonstrators. She sang at the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, D.C., immediately before Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream" speech. She also sang at King's Nobel Peace Prize ceremony the following year.

6. F. Sherwood Rowland: Ozone-Hole Explorer

Unlike other major awards, there is no time limit for the Nobel Prizes, provided they are presented within the recipients’ lifetimes. F. Sherwood Rowland shared the Nobel Prize for chemistry with two other scientists in 1995, a few years after they had already saved the world. Almost two decades earlier, Rowland, of the University of California, and post-doctoral student Mario Molina built upon findings by atmospheric scientist Paul Crutzen, suggesting that the Earth’s fragile ozone layer is formed and decomposed through chemical processes in the atmosphere. Among their discoveries: chlorofluorocarbons (or CFCs), used regularly in household aerosols, were fast destroying the ozone layer. This won enormous attention and, of course, was strongly challenged by industry, as the non-toxic properties of CFCs were thought to be environmentally safe. When the ozone hole was found over the Earth's polar regions a decade later, even the most skeptical corporations had to admit that they had a point. Rowland spoke out to ban CFCs, and the United Nations did so in 1989. Now that this work was done, he became a prominent voice for scientists concerned about global warming. “If you believe that you have found something that can affect the environment, isn't it your responsibility to do something about it, enough so that action actually takes place?" he said at a White House climate change roundtable in 1997. “If not us, who? If not now, when?”

7. Joseph E. Murray: Organ Transplant Pioneer

[caption id="attachment_158018" align="aligncenter" width="560" caption="Joseph E. Murray, center, and team perform the first successful kidney transplant operation. 1954, Brigham and Women's Hospital"][/caption]

Dr. Joseph Murray not only performed the first successful kidney transplant in 1954, but the first transplant of any human organ. Working at Boston's Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, he developed new surgical techniques, experimenting by transplanting kidneys in dogs. The first human patient was 23-year-old Richard Herrick, suffering from end-stage kidney failure, who received a kidney from his identical twin, Ronald. Sadly, Richard only lived another eight years, but that was long enough to marry a nurse from the hospital and have two children. Murray continued to achieve breakthroughs, so that patients lived many years longer, and in 1962, he completed the first organ transplant from an unrelated donor. (This was eight years before Dr. Christiaan Barnard became famous for performing the first heart transplant.) Proving that Nobel Prizes don’t guarantee fame (though they do provide some fortune) – and that you might need to be patient if you want one – Murray won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1990. “Kidney transplants seem so routine now,” he said, “but the first one was like Lindbergh's flight across the ocean.”

8. William Lawlis Pace: Miracle Man

[caption id="attachment_158019" align="aligncenter" width="560" caption="William Lawlis Pace points to the place where a bullet is lodged in his head. 2007, P Photo/The Modesto Bee"][/caption]

Another man with a very different place in medical history, Texan cemetery custodian William Pace holds the Guinness World Record for (are you ready for this?) living the longest with a bullet in his head. He died peacefully this year at age 103, a full 94 years and six months after his older brother accidentally shot him with their father's .22-caliber rifle in 1917. Doctors left the bullet in place because they worried that surgery might cause brain damage. The injury damaged one of his eyes and facial nerves, but Pace lived a very long and full life.

9. Eugene Polley: Patron Saint of Couch Potatoes

Lazy people everywhere can thank Eugene Polley for a machine that has enabled them to live their sedentary lifestyles: the TV remote-control. Though he wasn’t the first inventor to pioneer remote-control devices (Nikola Tesla was experimenting with one in the 19th century!), Polley changed the world with “Flash-Matic tuning," a unique feature of Zenith televisions way back in 1955, operated through a green contraption with a red trigger that could perform “TV miracles” while remaining “absolutely harmless to humans!” Pointing a beam of light at photo cells in the corners of the television screen, the Flash-Matic could turn on the picture, mute the sound during annoying commercials and, of course, change the channels. But the Chicago engineer’s invention (one of 18 patents that he received) achieved more than just a world of couch potatoes. It opened a new world beyond mechanical knobs and levers. “Without his idea, you might not have gotten to the Internet,”said Richard Doherty, CEO of technology research company Envisioneering. “It set the pace for dozens for follow-on inventions that go beyond the physical.” Polley also worked on radar advances for the U.S. Department of Defense during World War II, and helped develop the automobile push-button radio and the video disc, a forerunner of the DVD (the size of a vinyl LP rather than a CD).

10. Frances Williams Preston: Champion of Songwriters

Getty Images: Rick Diamond

Frances Preston’s name might not be well-known even to country music devotees, but she has been described as “the single most important figure responsible for making Nashville ‘Music City’.” Fortune magazine called her “one of the true powerhouses of the pop music business.” She won the highest Grammy Award for a non-performer (the National Trustees Award), and was a member of three Halls of Fame. For 22 years, Preston was president of the New York-based royalties company Broadcast Music Inc., which collects and distributes royalties to songwriters. Credited with coining the famous creed “It all begins with a song,” she had previously headed the company’s office in Nashville, ensuring that songwriters were given their due. Of course, many of these songwriters – Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn – were performers as well, and thanks to her efforts, many made more from composers’ royalties than from concert tours. Wielding such influence, she discovered new artists, mentored new music executives, and turned Nashville into a major music hub. When she moved to New York, she helped increase revenues to more than 300,000 songwriters and music publishers, and pioneered licensing rules for the tricky new world of digital media.

11. Jo Dunne: Foremost Fuzzboxing Brit

Jo Dunne was the guitarist, drummer and occasional bassist for the 1980s all-female pop group We've Got A Fuzzbox and We're Gonna Use It!! They were almost unknown outside Britain, though they did become the UK’s best-selling female rock band, as opposed to all-girl vocal group. But seriously, with a name like that (usually abbreviated to Fuzzbox), plus songs co-written by Dunne with titles like “Help Me Rhonda, My Boyfriend’s Back” — which, as you might guess, consisted of lines from other songs — they deserve some kind of place in history. Sadly, Dunne was only 43 years old.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]