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11 Things We No Longer See in Offices

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When digging through the dark recesses of the office supply cabinet, today’s average office worker might find a 5¼” floppy disk and consider it a relic of the Dark Ages. They’ve probably also never seen a canister-style ashtray in the corridor, or a pegboard bookkeeping system. Here are some other supplies and equipment that are quickly becoming museum pieces.

1. Telephone Switchboard

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It may be hard to conceive of today, but once upon a time, even the largest corporations (like General Motors or IBM) had one all-encompassing telephone number. Employees and departments had extension numbers, and all incoming calls were answered by the operator at the main number and then routed accordingly. Most callers didn’t know their party’s extension and would simply ask for the person by name, but no matter how vague (or rude) the request, they were connected promptly and accurately. It required some serious training to work the switchboard; it wasn’t as if anyone could just sit down and start connecting calls. So switchboard operators—who also doubled as receptionists in between calls—were integral to keeping an office running.

2. Telex Machines

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Back before the fax machine was invented, and when long-distance telephone calls were prohibitively expensive, a lot of business communication was handled via Telex. Sometimes colloquially referred to as a “teletype,” the operator typed out a message offline which was punched into a paper tape. Then the tape was inserted into a “reader” and the operator dialed the recipient’s Telex number—which, unlike today’s fax numbers, had only six digits—and then transmitted the message at a top speed of 66 words per minute. It was also possible to “talk” live in real time between two terminals; in fact, instead of an @ sign on the numeral “2” key, there was a BELL that rang on both ends with every tap that was used to call attention to the remote terminal in case there was no operator standing by. Western Union discontinued their Telex service in 1987 to concentrate on their new service, Easylink, some sort of developing technology called electronic mail.

3. Shorthand

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Even after the Dictaphone was invented, a lot of businessmen (executives were almost exclusively male at the time) preferred to dictate their correspondence to a secretary or stenographer, who sat beside his desk with a steno pad and duly took down his every word in shorthand. If he lost his train of thought, it was far more convenient to say “read that last sentence back to me” than to rewind a tape and try to find the exact sentence in question. A shorthand speed of 60 words per minute used to be the minimum that was acceptable for a secretarial position; 80 wpm was more the average, while Executive and Legal Secretaries were expected to accurately take dictation at 100 to 120 wpm. Gregg shorthand—a phonetic system invented in 1888 by John Robert Gregg—used to be commonly offered as a class in high schools across the U.S., but today the strokes are as mysterious as hieroglyphics to most young people.

4. Typewriter

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Some offices may have an old electric typewriter stashed away on a rolling cart tucked away in a cubby someplace, where it is occasionally rolled out and dusted off when a multi-part form needs to be filled out, but the majority of today’s cube-dwellers have never had to type a letter and center it vertically simply by eyeballing it. And they certainly don’t have the pinky finger strength of those of us who were trained in proper keyboard fingering on a manual machine. Let’s not forget the “futuristic” and “convenient” IBM Executive model, which featured proportionate spacing (that is, if you needed to backspace to correct a letter, you had to go back five spaces for a W and two for an I). The Executive allowed the user to easily right-justify text to give the document the look of a newspaper column: All the typist had to do was type the entire page once on a paper with a pencil line drawn down the right side of the paper, and then remove it and mark where spaces between words needed to be added or subtracted in order to make an even column. Once the page was duly annotated, all the typist needed to do was type the whole thing over again. Piece of cake, no?

5. Carbon Paper

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You know that “cc” box in your email form? That stands for “carbon copy,” and originally meant a copy of a document that had been rendered by carbon paper. (It was standard procedure to list the recipients of a particular document at the bottom with a “cc:” note so that everyone knew who all had received the letter or memo.)

Photocopiers (such as a Xerox machine) didn’t really become commonplace in the average workplace until the 1970s, and even then the cost of the machine plus toner and other parts meant that they weren’t used as cavalierly as they would be later. So office workers made multiple copies of a particular document using carbon paper; boxes of the stuff were once stocked as high as printer paper is today. Typists loaded a sheet of carbon paper and some onion skins (see below) into a typewriter; the lever on the left side of the machine, marked “A” through “E”, controlled the striking force of the keys, depending upon how many carbon copies the operator was making. Imagine the discouraging words that were uttered when occasionally, after painstakingly typing a long letter with five carbons, the typist discovered that she had accidentally inserted one of the carbons backwards.

6. Onion Skin

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Onion skin is a very thin, lightweight, translucent paper with a cockled finish for easy erasing. It was used with the above-mentioned carbon paper to make duplicate copies when typing (or handwriting) a document. Because it was so light, it was ideal for sending airmail correspondence—four pages of onion skin weighed about the same as one sheet of regular bond.

7. Airmail Envelopes

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When it absolutely, positively had to be there faster than regular surface mail in the pre-fax days, folks sent their documents via airmail. The postage rate for airmail was higher than regular postage and was based on weight, so by design the envelopes were made of thinner paper than a traditional envelope. They were also clearly marked with a red, white, and blue border so they stood out during the sorting process at the various post offices. The United States Post Office discontinued domestic airmail as a separate service in 1975 and simply shipped all mail by plane, and international airmail rates were likewise ditched in 1995.

8. Telecopier

The earliest facsimile machines were generically referred to as “telecopiers” and bore little resemblance to the modern fax machine (which is itself starting to go the dinosaur route). It had a handset coupler, but no built-in telephone; it had to be placed near a traditional telephone with a dedicated line. A human had to be on hand to answer the phone when it rang; the caller on the other end would tell them how many pages they would be transmitting. The human then had to manually insert one page of thermal paper underneath the metal lip on a cylinder inside the machine, set the transmission speed for either four or six minutes, and then slip the phone handset into the coupler, which triggered the sending process. When the page was done, the phone was removed temporarily and a new blank page inserted. It was slow, cumbersome and smelly (the image was more or less burned onto the page), but for the time it was pretty revolutionary to be able to send drawings and photos through the telephone lines.

9. Metal Telephone Flip Index

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What a handy way to keep all your important telephone numbers at your fingertips. You simply slid the lever on the right to the desired letter of the alphabet, pressed the release lever at the bottom, and the index popped open to the correct page. And they were fun to idly play with while you were chatting on the phone.

10. Ko-Rec-Type

In between the typewriter eraser and the IBM Self-Correcting Selectric typewriter, the go-to method of correcting typos was a product called Ko-Rec-Type. They were individual opaquing films, about the size of a Band-Aid, that the typist held in place over the incorrect letter and then “whited” it out by re-typing. It was like Liquid Paper on a small strip, only you didn’t have to wait for it to dry.

11. Adding Machine

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“Crunching” numbers was an actual sound that used to reverberate around the accounting department. Adding machines were large mechanical devices with 72 keys that added and subtracted (usually in terms of dollars and cents) only. Each key stayed depressed until the operator pulled the crank-arm.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]