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11 Weird and Wonderful Letterheads

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Although brands and calculated designs are everywhere we look, when we read our actual communications, our emails and text messages, they come to us in a uniform medium. Sure, maybe your aunt uses a wacky font, or your coworkers use signature lines, but design on a more serious scale has moved elsewhere. Gone are the days of paper stationery, when everything from the handwriting to the paper itself made a statement. And with the dwindling of communication by post goes the world of ingenious and idiosyncratic design embodied in the letterhead. Some letterheads were promotional, as in the case of special letterheads used by movie studios leading up to the release of a new film, and some were a form of brand strengthening, in the case of letterheads which depicted the storefronts of the retailers issuing the letter. Sometimes personal letterheads served no real purpose other than being a way to put your best foot forward. Whatever the case, letterheads were, and in a lesser sense still are, a way to showcase beautiful designs.

Here follows a selection of letterheads from a number of personages or organizations, famous and otherwise, taken from the phenomenal blog Letterheady, which is run by archivist Shaun Usher. Usher also runs the popular blog Letters of Note, and has developed a book of the same name.

1. The Overlook Hotel

This letterhead was developed for the fictional Overlook Hotel during production of The Shining, and was used as a prop for the film.

2. Richard Simmons

This non-hyperbolically uplifting letterhead belongs to exercise guru and short-shorts frontiersman Richard Simmons.

3. Frank Lloyd Wright

Architect and designer Frank Lloyd Wright used a number of different letterheads, but this one from 1946 is possibly the most ornate.

4. The Muppet Show Fan Club

This is the official 1981 letterhead of the Muppet Show Fan Club. Note the adorable conceit that Kermit is supposed to be speaking to you over the phone.

5. Charles Manson

This is serial killer Charles Manson’s letterhead from 2006. The design somewhat interferes with legibility here. The acronym “ATWA” at the bottom stands for Air, Trees, Water, and Animals, or, alternately, All The Way Alive.

6. Fabriken Fortschritt GmbH

This is the surreal letterhead of a furniture company from 1932, with a nightmarish cascading superdesk.

7. The Church of Scientology of California

This letterhead from the Church of Scientology of California (1976) features a visibly uncomfortable angel and almost no room to write a message.

8. Stephen King

Horror novelist Stephen King used this letterhead on his personal stationery during the early '80s.

9. Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla’s letterhead from 1900 showcases a number of his inventions to date, including an induction motor and a steam and gas turbine.

10. Gene Roddenberry

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry used this letterhead in 1967 to promote the then-new television show.

11. Harpo Marx

Arguably the most loved letterhead on Letterheady, this is Harpo Duer Marx’s personal letterhead from 1930. Hilarious then, and still hilarious now.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]