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Hal Morey/Getty Images

How a Former First Lady Helped Save Grand Central Terminal

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Hal Morey/Getty Images

New Yorkers are passionate about many things—proper sidewalk etiquette, their pizza vs. every other city’s pizza, the Mets vs. the Yankees—but near the top of that list for many residents is the preservation of historic buildings and other iconic structures. This year, as the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission celebrates its 50th anniversary, blogger Jeremiah Moss has been spearheading a campaign called #SaveNYC, which is aimed at stopping the destruction of New York City’s quirky, one-of-a-kind establishments. Given the current focus on preservation, it seems an appropriate time to look back to when that concept was still brand-new, and an unlikely rescuer stepped in to save a decaying train station.

In the aftermath of the destruction of the old Penn Station in 1963—a move that The New York Times described as “a monumental act of vandalism against one of the largest and finest landmarks of its age of Roman elegance”—the Landmarks Preservation Commission was created by then-Mayor Robert F. Wagner. The idea was to protect the city’s iconic, historic structures, with the Astor Library (now the Public Theater) becoming one of its first landmarked buildings in 1965. But even with the new organization in place, Penn Station’s east side counterpart, Grand Central Terminal, nearly suffered a similar fate.


Though it opened to great fanfare in 1913, welcoming more than 150,000 visitors on its first day, Grand Central Terminal lost its sparkle as the decades wore on. Its Beaux-Arts beauty—which had once helped spur the growth of Midtown (indirectly leading to the construction of icons like the Chrysler Building and the Waldorf Astoria Hotel)—had become something of an eyesore by the mid-20th-century. The ceiling of the main concourse, with its massive mural of constellations, was blackened from grime and tobacco smoke, the roof leaked, and a giant Kodak ad loomed large over the station. Train revenues were declining, leaving the station’s future uncertain.

Rumblings about tearing down Grand Central Terminal first began in 1954, when New York Central (the rail company that owned Grand Central Terminal) first proposed replacing the downtrodden station with a money-making skyscraper. Architect I.M. Pei even proposed a cylindrical behemoth called the Hyperboloid to be built in the terminal’s place, though it ultimately never got off the ground. So what did end up getting built? The Pan Am Building, now known as the MetLife Building, a 58-story glass-and-steel tower that stuck out like a sore thumb against Grand Central’s Beaux-Arts façade. (The New York Times' architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable called the building “gigantically second rate” upon its completion.) Luckily, the train station was spared—at least for the moment.

When the Landmarks Preservation Commission was created in 1965, it gave Grand Central’s protectors more ammunition in the fight to preserve the space, especially once the terminal was designated as a New York City landmark in 1967. But its opponents fought back: In 1968, a new conglomerate, the Penn Central Transportation Company (a merger between New York Central and the Pennsylvania Railroad) doubled down in its attempts to build on top of the terminal, getting architect Marcel Breur to design a 55-story skyscraper that would essentially sit on top of Grand Central Terminal. Advocates shut that down, and Penn Central eventually sued New York City to try and move forward with plans to alter the structure.

That’s when a famous face stepped in to help: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who had moved to New York City after her husband’s assassination, partnered with the Municipal Art Society to create the Committee to Save Grand Central Station. She spoke at meetings and appeared at press conferences, and even sent then-Mayor Abe Beame a letter urging him to help preserve the station.

“Americans care about their past, but for short-term gain they ignore it and tear down everything that matters,” Kennedy wrote. (Ouch.) Most importantly, her fame and continued popularity in the public eye meant that the preservation of Grand Central became a cause célèbre. Even though Penn Central’s case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, it was ultimately a lost cause, and Grand Central Terminal lived on.

Sure, Jackie Kennedy wasn’t solely responsible for the station’s continued existence (and its eventual restoration, which took another couple of decades to complete), but her involvement definitely gave the cause more cachet. (NYC’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which now runs Grand Central Terminal, paid tribute to Kennedy’s perseverance in 2014 by naming the station’s main entrance at 42nd Street and Park Avenue after her.) Kennedy would later go on to champion other preservationist causes, including saving the Modernist Lever House building and opposing the construction of a massive building near St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue. The next time you stroll underneath the terminal’s gorgeously tiled Guastavino ceilings, or admire its celestial main-concourse mural, remember that you have the former First Lady to (partially) thank.

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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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”