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10 Already Obsolete Things Included in the 5000-Year Westinghouse Time Capsule

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The site of the 1939 World’s Fair is home to a time capsule that was put in the ground in 1938 and is due to be unearthed and opened in the year 6939. The “Immortal Well” that houses the capsule is located in the Westinghouse Pavilion of the fairgrounds in Queens, New York, and remains untouched to this day. More than 100 items were placed in the box, and though only 75 years have gone by, many of those objects are now obsolete, giving us an intriguing look at how quickly we outgrow our common possessions.

1. Keuffel & Esser Slide Rule

Think of it as a paper TI83. A slide rule was an analog computer that assisted aviators, bankers, and the like with complex mathematics and logarithmic problem solving. Electronic computers have since phased this tool out.

2. Artificial Leather Asbestos Shingle (furnished by Johns-Manville)

Before the 1980s, there was little known about the carcinogenic dangers of asbestos. Asbestos was a common additive used to make materials fire retardant, and it was so popular that capsule organizers included it.

3. Transite

As if the shingle wasn’t enough, Transite—which consisted of cement and asbestos—was also included. Transite is another fire-proofing material found in construction. It's still made today, minus the asbestos.

4. An Essay in Micro-Film

According to the World's Fair website, this essay was comprised of

books, speeches, excerpts from books and encyclopedias, pictures, critiques, reports, circulars, timetables and other printed or written matter; the whole producing in logical order a description of our time, our arts, sciences, techniques, sources of information and industries. The essay, divided into fifteen sub-sections, contains the equivalent of more than 100 ordinary books; a total of more than 22,000 pages, more than 10,000,000 words and 1000 pictures.

5. A Micro-Film Reader (or the instructions to make one)

While it is not agreed upon that the item ever made it into the capsule, instructions on how to make one were included.

6. Dr. West's Tooth Powder

Toothpaste’s gritty, non-hydrated cousin, tooth powder was the dentifrice of choice in the 1930s. This abrasive, chalky powder was sprinkled over the toothbrush and left the mouth feeling fresh, clean, and probably a little dry.

7. Boy’s Toy - A Mechanical, Spring Propelled Automobile

OK, we still have toy cars. That said, you would be hard-pressed to find a 6-year-old pushing around a ride like this one. Tin wind-up toys, this one rumored to be a Marx Toys “Tricky Taxi,” were a mix of intricate gears, a strong metal body, and artisanal paint jobs. Wind-up toys eventually fell victim to the battery and miniature motors.

8. Kodak Bantam Camera

35MM film cameras feel like ancient history when just about all your devices come equipped with a double-digit megapixel digital camera inside them.

9. Handset Type - Capital and Lowercase Alphabets of Goudy Village No. 2 type, 14 point

Think about the lost art of handsetting each individual letter onto the page. Again, some artisanal handset typists exist, but the art has been cast aside with the advent of the typewriter and now computer.

10. Linotype - 8 point Caslon 13 em slug set on standard Linotype in the shop of the Tuckahoe Record, Tuckahoe, N.Y.

The line reads: "This type set by Machine." Linotype machines allowed typesetters to work in full lines rather than in individual letters. Typists keyed in lines to be printed and the machine created a metal slug of the complete line. This was then set to be printed in great quantities. This revolutionized the speed and accuracy of typesetting making it possible for magazines and newspapers to handle much more volume.

All images courtesy of 1939worldsfair.com

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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