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17 of Thomas Edison's Oldest Films

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Getty Images

Thomas Edison was a man of firsts. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that he built the first movie studio in 1893 (called the Black Maria, above). Stocked with a staff of fellow know-it-alls, Edison’s Company made nearly 1200 films. Here are some of Edison’s best oldies, from the first recording of a kiss to the greatest cat video on the internet.

1. Newark Athlete (1891)

Film doesn’t get much older than this! A young boy twirls two Indian Clubs in one of Edison’s earliest experimental film fragments.

2. Fred Ott’s Famous sneeze (1894)

Fred Ott was the jokester of Edison labs, so when Edison needed a model for his new Kinetograph, Ott was the perfect choice. Here, Ott sniffs a pinch of snuff and lets out the sneeze seen ‘round the world. It’s the earliest surviving copyrighted motion picture.

3. Carmencita—The first woman on film (1894)

When Spanish dancer Carmencita brought her saucy act to Edison’s lab, she became the first woman ever to appear in front of a motion picture camera.

4. Annie Oakley Sharpshooting (1894)

"Little Sure Shot" Annie Oakley easily obliterated these targets in Edison’s studio. Oakley and Edison met when he visited the 1889 World's Fair in Paris, where she was performing as part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

5. Sandow the Strong Man (1894)

Considered the father of modern bodybuilding, Eugene Sandow could flex some serious muscle.

6. Sioux Ghost Dance: The Native American Film Debut (1894)

Edison’s team was the first to record American Indians with a motion picture camera. Like Oakley, the Sioux here were part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.

7. The World’s First Hand-Tinted Motion Picture (1895)

Broadway dancer Annabelle Moore caused a stir when people caught a peek above her knee in this colorful short. Scandalous!

8. The First Kiss for the Movie Cameras (1896)

Actors May Irwin and John Rice smooch for the camera, reenacting a scene from the musical The Widow Jones. It caused an uproar. Not only was it one of the first commercial films shown to the public, it was also the first to capture a kiss.

9. The Sutro Baths (1897)

When San Francisco’s Sutro baths opened in 1896, it was the largest indoor swimming complex in the world. It seems people weren’t on their best behavior there.  

10. Wreckage of the Battleship Maine (1898)

In February 1898, the U.S. Battleship Maine exploded in Havana Harbor and ignited the Spanish-American War. This footage by William Paley roves around the wreckage.

11. The First Ballgame on Film (1898)

Possibly the first recording of America’s pastime, ballplayers donning “Newark” jerseys chug to first base.

12. Street-side Acrobatics (1898)

Break dancing has been around longer than you think!

13. The World’s First Car Parade (1899)

The modern automobile was born in 1886, so it was only a matter of time before people started dedicating entire parades to them. Here, Edison’s team captures the first annual automobile parade in Manhattan.

14. What Happened on 23rd Street? (1901)

As trolleys, horse-drawn carriages, and dapper men amble down a dusty NYC street, a couple—two actors—walk to the camera and pause at an air vent. According to the Edison Company’s film catalog, “The young lady’s skirts are suddenly raised to, you might say an almost unreasonable height, greatly to her horror and much to the amusement of the newsboys, bootblacks and passersby.” You be the judge.

15. A Bustling Fish market (1903)

Health inspectors patrol this street market in the Lower East Side—once a hub for Jewish commerce—as peddlers and customers bicker. Can you imagine what they’re saying?

16. The Oldest Existing Footage of a Football Game: Princeton and Yale (1903)

Although 50,000 fans were in the New Haven stands, the visiting Tigers got the W, winning 11-6. The action starts at 2:13.

17. The Greatest Video of All-Time (1894)

Behold! The King of Cat videos!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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