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6 Famous Bastards Who Made Their Mark

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Accusing someone of illegitimate birth has long been one of the greatest insults possible, so it's not at all surprising that some of history's greatest shoulder- mounted chips have been securely fastened to people with murky parentage. In fact, by the look of the names on this list, it just might be a recipe for success.

1. Confucius (ca. 551"“479 BCE)

The early life of K'ung-Fu-tzu, better known in the West as Confucius, is largely a mystery. Born in the feudal kingdom of Lu, Confucius served as an adviser on political matters and court etiquette to several Chinese leaders during the mid- to late 500s BCE. The circumstances of Confucius's own birth, however, are hardly up to any Emily Post standards. According to the first complete biography of Confucius, the Shiji, his dad, a warlord named Shu Liang He, and his mom, a member of the Yan clan, "came roughly together," indicating either a rape, concubinage, or some other sort of extramarital shenanigan. His low birth, however, didn't stop him from attracting plenty of highborn followers, many of whom protected him when his outspoken manner offended his various employers.

2. Leonardo da Vinci (1452"“1519)

leonardo-da-vinci.jpg Everyone knows of Leonardo da Vinci, the well-rounded man who could be a painter, a naturalist, an engineer, a metallurgist, or a philosopher with equal ease. It's considerably less well known that this personification of the Renaissance was actually the son of a notary, Ser Piero, and a peasant girl of somewhat "easy virtue." In fact, the two simply took a tumble in the hay together before going their separate ways and providing Leonardo, from their marriages to other people, with 17 half brothers and sisters. Needless to say, these assorted half siblings were none too fond of their renowned relation, whose birth was something of an embarrassment, and on his father's death in 1503 they conspired to deprive him of his share of the estate. Leonardo had the last laugh, however, when the death of an uncle led to a similar inheritance squabble, leaving him with sole custody of the uncle's lands and property.Founding fathers, dictators, and revolutionaries all after the jump...

3. Thomas Paine (1737"“1809) and 4. Alexander Hamilton (1755"“1804)

PAINE REV 303.gifalex2.jpgTwo of the best-known fathers of the American republic, Thomas Paine and Alexander Hamilton, were the results of extramarital affairs. Paine, whose Common Sense helped bring widespread support to the American Revolution, and whose other writings, like the anti-Bible tract The Age of Reason, scandalized all and sundry, had to flee England a step ahead of treason charges. In the end, however, he died penniless in the United States. Hamilton, on the other hand, was the illegitimate son of West Indian colonials, and made a name for himself as a brilliant orator and writer. He eventually became one of the leaders of the American Federalist Party, but had the misfortune to be challenged to a duel by Aaron Burr. He also had the even greater misfortune of accepting, bringing his career to a dramatic close one fine New Jersey morning.

5. Lawrence of Arabia (1888"“1935)

lawrence-of-arabia-DVDcover.jpg The illegitimate son of a knight and his children's nanny, T. E. Lawrence became the model for generations of British diplomats blindly idolizing all things Arabian. One of the organizers of the much-touted (but in reality fought more on paper than on the battlefield) Arab revolt against the Turks during World War I, Lawrence later became embittered with Britain's imperial policy and spent the last few years of his life sulking and tinkering with motorcycles (he died in a motorcycle accident). Though he largely tried to keep a low profile, his much-exaggerated accomplishments led to him being dubbed "Lawrence of Arabia."

6. Eva Perón (1919"“1952)

Eva_Peron.jpg"Saint Evita" was the daughter of an adulterous relationship between two villagers in an impoverished part of Argentina. She made a name for herself as an actress before marrying Juan Perón in 1944, but, being illegitimate (and a peasant), she was never really accepted in the social circles in which he routinely traveled. As a rising military officer, Perón quickly found himself dictator of Argentina, and "Evita" was by his side. In fact, she was there to do more than just wave at crowds and manage the mansion. Evita actually ran several government ministries and almost became vice president in 1951 (the military bullied Perón into making her drop out of the campaign). And though she's best known to many from the musical and movie that bear her name, you really shouldn't feel obligated to cry for her. While the flick plays up the glamour and romance of her career, it largely ignores her corruption, oppression of political rivals, cozying up to Nazi war criminals, and other questionable doings.

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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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May 23, 2017
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