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What Is the Trendiest Baby Name in American History?

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What is the trendiest baby name in American history? Jayden? Madison? Khaleesi?

The answer might not sound so trendy to you: Linda.

Quantifying trendiness is tricky, since there's no universally accepted way to calculate how much of a fad a name was. But according to researcher David Taylor, Linda may very well be the trendiest name ever. Taylor devised a metric for trendiness that takes into account overall popularity as well as steepness of a name’s rise and fall. So while Mary was very, very popular, it was popular over a long time period, and therefore not trendy. And while Deneen had a huge quick spike in popularity over a few years in the 1960s, it never accounted for a very high percentage of names even at its peak.

In 2015, just .022 percent of all female births in the U.S. were Lindas. But in 1947, it had the largest yearly rise ever, accounting for 5.48 percent of all baby girls’ names. This sudden meteoric rise was due to the wild success of one hit single: a 1946 Jack Lawrence song named, appropriately, "Linda."

"Linda" was written in 1942, but only released in 1946, later nearing the top of the Billboard Juke Box Record Plays charts in 1947. The song was written about then-1-year-old Linda Louise Eastman, later known as Linda McCartney.

Linda peaked in popularity as a baby name a year later in 1948, and it would remain in the top 5 names for girls through 1963. However, by 1954, Linda had already declined to be around half as popular as it was at its peak, having been overtaken at number 1 by Mary, the name it had replaced at the top.

For the historically curious, it can be a fun exercise to go through baby name fads to try and discover what led to a name's rise in popularity. Another high profile example from pop culture is the name Shirley, spurred on by the child actress Shirley Temple. Shirley peaked as a baby name in 1935. Like Linda, it didn’t take long for it to decline in popularity.

Going by Taylor’s metric, all but one of the top 10 trendiest names of all time were girl's names. The only top 10 name from male births is Dewey, with peak years at the end of the 19th century. By whatever measure, it does seem to be the case that popular names given to female babies tend to be more ephemeral. A recent compilation of 30 baby name fads by MooseRoots was also mainly names given to girls.

According to a 2009 PNAS study by marketing professor Jonah Berger, this rise-and-fall behavior may actually be the norm and not the exception: "Most names show a period of almost consistent increase in popularity, followed by a decline that leads to abandonment." Berger’s analysis found that what made names differ is "how quickly their popularity rises and declines." Berger examined rates of rise and decline, and found that names which became popular faster tended to be abandoned faster as well. Berger also surveyed expectant parents on their attitudes about baby names. Names that gained quick popularity tended to give parents pause. They were "seen as more likely to be short-lived fads," thereby making parents less likely to adopt them.

Will there be another name like Linda? No and yes. The days when any one name could achieve 5 percent popularity for baby girls seem to be long gone. Top names for girls now hover at around 1 percent, indicative of a much greater overall diversity—and a hesitation to get on a really popular naming bandwagon.

But will parents seek out new names en masse only for those to fall out of favor shortly thereafter? Absolutely. Just as Britney and Miley have declined in recent years, so now Arya and Aria are seeing a bit of Game of Thrones-fueled growth (helped along by the show Pretty Little Liars). What new name will emerge from 2016? Don’t be surprised if a good amount of parents watching Stranger Things this year decide to name their baby girls Eleven.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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