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Quittin' Time!: People Who Punched Out of Work In Their Prime

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Most one-book authors are one-book authors for a reason: They die before they can crank out a second. (Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind comes to mind.) It seems Harper Lee, however, just plain doesn't want to write anymore. In the 1950s, Lee moved to New York to become an author, and in one sense, she succeeded. Her 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, won a Pulitzer Prize and is already a classic. But aside from a few nonfiction magazine articles she published later in the 1960s, she's refused to write anything since—including a foreword for her lone novel.



Jackie Jensen, an outfielder for the Boston Red Sox, was named the American League's Most Valuable Player in 1958. Just one year later, though, the 32-year-old slugger retired. Jensen wasn't ill, but he did have a condition he couldn't surmount. In the late 1950s, teams began traveling between cities on planes rather than trains, and Jensen didn't find the skies too friendly. The owner of the Sox hired a psychiatrist and a hypnotist to help the right-fielder overcome the phobia, but nothing worked. Convinced to return in 1961 after sitting out a year, Jensen played one more season for the Red Sox (although he took unpaid leave during several West Coast road trips) before giving up on baseball—and flying—for good.



If there's one job we can't imagine quitting, it's that of Slinky® CEO. Richard James invented the Slinky in 1943 after he saw a spring fall off a table and wiggle upon hitting the floor. And despite being about as much fun as watching a spring fall off a table and wiggle on the floor, the Slinky became an overnight sensation. When Slinky sales started to slack off in the mid-1950s, however, James turned his attention to things that went up instead of down. He donated most of his money to his church and left behind the nearly bankrupt Slinky business to become a missionary in Bolivia. He remained there until his death in 1974, when he fell down the stairs. (Just kidding. It was a heart attack.) Fortunately, James' wife raised the Slinky empire from its ruins, and to date, more than a quarter-billion of the toys have been sold.



Make a note, people. Quitting can have its consequences. Just ask Pietro di Murrone, a simple 13th-century monk who enjoyed spending his free time hanging out in the woods and practicing ascetic self-denial. (Most of us are quite content with just one Lent celebration every year. Pietro preferred four.) Given his fondness for solitude and utter lack of experience with church bureaucracy, Pietro was a terrible candidate for pope. And yet, nobody seemed to care. In 1294, the 88-year-old won unanimous support from the cardinals and became Pope Celestine V. He quickly proved he was no good at the job, though, and abdicated just five months later. He then returned to the woods to mind his own business. But the new pope, Boniface VIII, had no intentions of letting Celestine off that easy. Boniface found Pietro, dragged him back to Rome, threw him in jail for two years, and then had him killed.

This adventure into the mental_floss archives has been brought to you today by Volume 4, Issue 3, and intrepid writer John Green.  

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]