CLOSE
Original image
ThinkStock

25 Things You Didn’t Know About San Francisco

Original image
ThinkStock

You know your bays and bridges, but here are 25 unreal facts you might not have known about the Golden City.

1. The Chinese fortune cookie was invented by a Japanese resident of San Francisco.

2. And Irish coffee? It was perfected and popularized in the City by the Bay.

3. Lombard Street gets all the love, but Filbert St. between Hyde and Leavenworth Streets is the steepest—31.5 degrees!

4. San Francisco was part of Mexico until the Mexican-American War in 1848.

5. During the Depression, not a single San Francisco-based bank failed.

6. Business was so good, the city constructed the Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge during the Depression.

7. When Al Capone was held at Alcatraz, he gave regular Sunday concerts with the inmate band, the Rock Islanders. He played the banjo.

8. In 1901, the city outlawed burials. Most of its cemeteries are in Colma, Calif. There, the dead outnumber the living by over 1000 to 1.

9. The “Summer of Love” actually started in the winter. The January 1967 Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park kicked it off.

10. Speaking of seasonal confusion, Mark Twain wasn’t as down on San Francisco’s weather as some people would have you believe. Twain never uttered the quote, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”

11. The neighborhoods of Marina, Mission Bay, and Hunters Point are all built atop a landfill.

12. The first bubonic plague epidemic in the continental US broke out in SF’s Chinatown in 1900.

13. As historical beginnings go, the United Nations Charter was drafted and ratified in San Francisco in 1945.

14. And as historic endings go, the Beatles gave their last full concert at Candlestick Park on August 29, 1966.

15. San Francisco was huge on the mid-century treaty circuit. In 1951, the Treaty of San Francisco officially ended Japanese hostilities from World War II.

16. When prospectors caught gold fever and hightailed it to California, San Francisco’s port became packed with abandoned ships. With demand to build the city booming, the ships were torn apart and repurposed into banks, businesses, and homes.

17. Decades later, in 1906, three quarters of the city was destroyed by an earthquake and fire.

18. Contemporary reports of the fire note that an unlikely hero helped save the city: Redwood trees. When fire hit buildings made of redwood, which has low resin content and a porous grain that takes in lots of water, they didn’t go up in smoke.

19. In September 1859, San Francisco’s favorite eccentric resident, Joshua Abraham Norton, declared himself America’s emperor.

20. Emperor Norton had a following: Nearly 30,000 people later packed the streets for his funeral.

21. The bear on California’s state flag is modeled after a California grizzly named Monarch, who was held at Golden Gate Park.

22. The U.S. Navy originally planned on painting the Golden Gate Bridge black with yellow stripes. The famed “International Orange” color was supposed to be a sealant.

23. In 1867, San Francisco instituted America’s first “ugly law,” which prohibited unsightly people from showing their faces in public. (It’s since been repealed.)

24. The city’s cable cars are the only National Historical Monument that can move.

25. The Liberty Bell once vacationed in San Francisco! When San Francisco hosted the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, America’s most famous bell made a national train tour to be part of the fun. After the exposition ended, it returned to Philadelphia, where it’s stayed ever since. Once you’ve seen San Francisco, why travel anywhere else?

Now that you're a San Francisco expert, sign up for the Great Urban Race on February 22, 2014 for the smartest, most active way to test your knowledge!

All images courtesy of ThinkStock

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
arrow
technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
iStock
arrow
Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
Original image
iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
arrow
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES