Cornell University Library
Cornell University Library

See How Yearbook Photos Have Evolved Over the Past Century

Cornell University Library
Cornell University Library

High school picture day is a tradition that dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. And while the basic formula of a front-facing pose against a neutral background hasn’t changed much in the past 100 years or so, facial expressions certainly have. For a better look at the similarities and differences between yearbook photos through the decades, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley recently compiled data on tens of thousands of images from the past 110 years [PDF].

The team's research marks one the first times machine-learning algorithms have been used to mine historic data from a collection of photographs. The high school yearbook photos were gathered from the digital databases of local libraries across the U.S. After downloading 150,000 pictures, the team eliminated all the photographs that weren’t front-facing portraits, leaving them with 37,000 samples from over 800 yearbooks from 26 states.

Next, they generated an “average” image for the men and women of each decade. By superimposing the groups of portraits together, they were able to then identify any trends exhibited in the composite images. One of the more interesting changes these pictures showed was the evolution of the subjects’ smiles.

When photography was still gaining popularity at the turn of the 20th century, it was normal for people to adopt a neutral expression for their portraits. According to the authors of the study, the earlier expressions might were partly a product of the beauty standards of the time: "Etiquette and beauty standards dictated that the mouth be kept small—resulting in an instruction to 'say prunes' (rather than cheese) when a photograph was being taken." (Not, it should be noted, due to long exposure times. By the late 19th century, innovations in photography had cut exposure time down to mere seconds.) 

As the 20th century wore on, the classic posed smile we adopt today began to emerge. An algorithm measuring the yearbook photos' shifting degrees of lip curvature supports this, and the trend can also be clearly observed in the composite images. Notably, this was around the same time that Kodak began releasing advertisements of happy people "smiling for the camera." The authors of the paper suggest this had a significant impact on how people chose to pose for their pictures.

The process also revealed data-backed proof of shifting trends in other areas, such as average hairstyles for each decade. While women of the '30s rocked finger waves, pin curls dominated the '40s and '50s, Afros took over in the '70s, and perms and bangs had their moment in the '80s and '90s. The data the team gathered on the progress of male fashion was slightly less interesting: men have been wearing standard suits in their high school yearbook pictures for over a century. 

Images Courtesy of the Cornell University Library.

[h/t: MIT Technology Review]

Jeremy Freeman, TruTV
A New Game Show Helps Contestants Pay Off Their Student Loans
Jeremy Freeman, TruTV
Jeremy Freeman, TruTV

Most game shows offer flashy prizes—a trip to Maui, a million dollars, or a brand new car—but TruTV’s latest venture is giving away something much more practical: the opportunity to get out of student loan debt. Set to premiere July 10 on TruTV, Paid Off is designed to help contestants with college degrees win hard cash to put towards their loan payments, MarketWatch reports.

The show gives college graduates with student loan debt "the chance to test the depth of their degrees in a fun, fast-paced trivia game show,” according to TruTV’s description. In each episode, three contestants compete in rounds of trivia, with one contestant eliminated each round.

One Family Feud-style segment asks contestants to guess the most popular answer to college-related poll questions like “What’s the best job you can have while in college?” (Answer: Server.) Other segments test contestants' general trivia knowledge. In one, for example, a contestant is given 20 seconds to guess whether certain characters are from Goodfellas or the children’s show Thomas & Friends. Some segments also give them the chance to answer questions related to their college major.

Game show host Michael Torpey behind a podium

Based on the number of questions they answer correctly, the last contestant standing can win enough money to pay off the entirety of their student debt. (However, like most game shows, all prizes are taxable, so they won't take home the full amount they win.)

Paid Off was created by actor Michael Torpey, who is best known for his portrayal of the sadistic corrections officer Thomas Humphrey in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. Torpey, who also hosts the show, says the cause is personal to him.

“My wife and I struggled with student debt and could only pay it off because—true story—I booked an underpants commercial,” Torpey says in the show’s pilot episode. “But what about the other 45 million Americans with student loans? Sadly, there just aren’t that many underpants commercials. That is why I made this game show.”

The show is likely to draw some criticism for its seemingly flippant handling of a serious issue that affects roughly one in four Americans. But according to Torpey, that’s all part of the plan. The host told MarketWatch that the show is designed “to be so stupid that the people in power look at it and say, ‘That guy is making us look like a bunch of dum dums, we’ve got to do something about this.’”

Paid Off will premiere on Tuesday, July 10 at 10 p.m. Eastern time (9 p.m. Central time).

[h/t MarketWatch]

Northeastern University Is Now Handing Out Echo Dots to Its Students

Northeastern University is welcoming new students with an unusual addition to their dorm rooms this fall: an Echo Dot. According to USA Today, the Boston university will give some of its incoming students the option to receive a specialized Echo Dot smart home device that can help answer questions related to their school experience.

Northeastern's Echo Dot program doesn't just provide standard-issue smart home devices. The university has developed a special "Husky Helper" skill (named after the university mascot) that can answer common questions that students might otherwise pose to student services over the phone. The idea is that students will get answers to their questions quickly, and student services won't have to put so many employees to work answering basic queries about issues like dining hall meal card balances.

They can ask it things like whether they have a health insurance waiver on file with the university (a requirement for students who don't have university insurance) or have the device set a timer when they have to leave for their next class. Of course, they can also use it for all the things a non-student might use a Dot for, like playing music or getting weather updates.

Students can decide whether to opt in to the program and how much access to give Amazon. They can add information about their class schedules, meal plan accounts, tuition payments, and more. Students who ask about some sensitive information, like their grades, are instead directed to the proper university department to call, rather than their private data being read out for the whole dorm to hear.

The Northeastern Echo Dot program started out with a 60-student pilot for the 2017 - 2018 academic year, but will expand to more students in the fall.

[h/t USA Today]