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Famous folk who killed themselves (and folks who famously killed themselves)

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Part 1 in a series

For the final project in my 11th grade AP English class, everyone was assigned a famous author. We had to learn everything we could about this person, both canonically and biographically, and then impersonate said author for a whole day at the end of the year: we had to dress up like them, speak like them, and be ready to answer any of of a battery of questions that our teacher, or anyone else, would ask us that day about our famous alter-egos. When the day came, we arrived at school, slightly humiliated by our costumes, and sat along the main hall in a long row. Elementary school classes would parade by us, instructed by their teachers to learn everything they could from us. They only had two questions:

"Were you gay?" "Did you kill yourself?"

I was William Faulkner, and unless you consider alcoholism a form of suicide, I had not. To my left, however, was Jerzy Kozinski (my friend Chris), who after writing The Painted Bird, Being There and some other wonderful novels had tied a shopping bag around his head after leaving a note that read "I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual." To my right was Sylvia Plath, who had, famously, stuck her head in an oven. The kids danced around, delighted, chanting "Oven-head! Oven-head!"

Years later, I've finally come to the realization that famous suicides are pretty interesting -- and inherently bloggable. Here are some that surprised me:

George Eastman
Eastman patented the roll film camera in 1888, revolutionized (and democratized) photography and built one of the largest and most successful brands in the world: Kodak. But the last years of his life were marred by increasing depression as his body succumbed to a degenerative spinal disorder that threatened to put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life (as had happened to his mother). Rather than suffer the same fate, he shot himself in the heart in 1932, leaving a note that read "My work is done. Why wait?" He's buried on the Kodak campus in Rochester, NY.

Captain Lawrence Oates
oates.jpgAn explorer on Robert Scott's ill-fated 1910 expedition to Antarctica, he was part of a five-man team chosen to make the final leg of the trip from the ship to the pole itself on foot. On their way back, disagreeable weather began to irritate an old war wound of his, slowing the whole team down. Despite a coming blizzard and dwindling rations, his comrades refused to leave him behind even though his sluggish pace threatened to strand them all. When the blizzard caught up with them, he decided to take matters into his own hands and leave himself behind: one day he simply walked out of the tent where they had huddled to ride out the storm, saying "I am just going outside and may be some time." He never returned. It was his 32nd birthday.

Alan Turing
apple_logo.jpgOften called the father of modern computer science, Turing was a British mathematician who created one of the first designs for a stored-program computer and became an extremely proficient codebreaker during World War II, saving countless lives thanks to his decryption of the Germans' Enigma machine. He was also a homosexual, for which he was prosecuted by the British government in 1952, and forced to take libido-reducing hormones or face jail time. His security clearance was revoked, his reputation in tatters. Two years later, he was found dead in his house from cyanide poisoning; many believe he had eaten a cyanide-laced apple found partially eaten nearby, a kind of homage to his favorite fairy tale, Snow White. Some have said that the Apple Computer logo is a coded tribute to Turing's genius, and his persecution.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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