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Beyond Big Gulps: 5 Other Bizarre Bans in New York History

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By Danny Gallagher

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's scuttled rule on jumbo sodas is just the latest in a long line of regulations on verboten goods.

1. Pinball

This amusement industry staple occupied some serious real estate in arcades across the nation during its heyday. But some of America's biggest metropolises enacted strict bans on the game tables. New York City was one of them. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia led an ambitious effort to rid his city of mob activity—including their well-established gambling rackets, which included pinball, since some machines would reward winners with money. In 1942, a Bronx court ruled that pinball was an illegal form of gambling, and police started rounding up the machines. Los Angeles and Chicago soon followed suit. The ban stayed in effect until 1976, when GQ editor and pinball aficionado Roger Sharpe helped demonstrate that pinball was actually a game of skill instead of chance by playing the game and successfully calling his shots in front of the New York City Council.

2. The words "burlesque" and "strip-tease"

LaGuardia's crusade to clean up New York didn't stop at the arcade. He also went after the city's legendary chain of burlesque and strip shows, practically putting them out of business. The mayor enacted laws in 1937 that banned the use of words such as "burlesque" and "strip-tease" from occupying any space on club or theater marquees. The ban stayed in place until 1955, when a State Supreme Court Justice approved a court order to lift it.

3. Beekeeping

New York City never explicitly spelled out a ban on beekeeping, but its health code does prevent citizens from keeping animals that are "wild, ferocious, fierce, dangerous or naturally inclined to do harm"—and city officials once considered bees to be in that category. The New York City Beekeepers Association led a long campaign to get the city's Board of Health and Mental Hygiene to let them keep and cultivate their hives on the city's rooftops, and they got their wish in 2010, when the law was amended to allow beekeeping.

4. Pet ferrets

Thank former Mayor Rudy Giuliani for this one. In 1999, he amended the bee-encompassing code on "wild, ferocious" animals to include a ban on ferrets. The city and its mayor quickly felt the wrath of ferret owners, including the New York Ferret's Right Advocacy group, whose president called in to the mayor's weekly radio show to discuss his concerns. The two got into a short but legendary shouting match, leading Giuliani to remark that "there is something really sad about you and you need help... This excessive concern with little weasels is a sickness."

5. MMA fighting

It may be one of the fastest growing spectator sports in the country, but the state of New York still has a strict ban on mixed martial arts. The law, enacted in 1997 by former Gov. George Pataki, who once called the sport "barbaric," prohibits any MMA bouts and remains in place to this day. The legislature tried and failed to overturn the law in 2011. That led to a lawsuit from UFC, which called the ban unconstitutional. But this ban may not be long for this world. Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently said he enjoys watching the occasional fight, and feels that lost revenues from ticket sales might change some politicians' minds about repealing the ban.

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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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