Original image

Richard Nixon and 12 Other Celebrity Quakers

Original image

Being a product of the Delaware school system, I can't help but love Quakers. My middle and junior high schools were located on a Meeting House Lane. Pacifism, abolitionism and tolerance have always seemed like good ideas to me. And I'm a total sucker for Quaker Oats packaging. But the fact is, aside from William Penn and Betsy Ross, I really don't know that many famous Quakers. So I decided to look "˜em up. Here's what I found"¦

1. Richard Nixon

With all the nation making such a big deal about Kennedy being a Catholic, it's interesting to note that old Milhous Nixon was born and raised Quaker. According to the web, his strict mother instilled conservative Quaker values in him (no swearing, drinking or dancing). When he couldn't afford to go to Harvard (despite earning a scholarship there), he attended Whitter- a local Quaker college where he became class President, started a frat, practiced with the football team, and even spent his Sundays teaching Sunday school to little tykes. The most interesting part of his faith to me, though, isn't that the non-violent doctrine conflicted with his personal views on Vietnam, but rather that his straightlaced upbringing hindered his ability to communicate as a family lawyer. According to wikipedia, "He later wrote that family law cases caused him particular discomfort, since his reticent Quaker upbringing was severely at odds with the idea of discussing intimate marital details with strangers."

2. Daniel Boone


American settler, hunter, and folk hero Daniel Boone was born and raised Quaker. In fact, his family emigrated to the U.S. from England partially for that reason. What's more interesting, however, is why the Boone family didn't stay within the fold. Apparently, Danny's sister Sarah made waves in the community when she married a non-Quaker. That, in itself, might not have caused a controversy. The fact that she was visibly pregnant at the time did. The family publicly apologized for their daughter's behavior. But after their son Israel also married a non-Quaker, the Boone's became a famiglia non grata and up and moved to Carolina.

3. Joan Baez


If you're wondering how folk singer Joan Baez's religion might have played into her development as a political activist, you might want to take a look at her father's life choices. Albert Baez converted to Quakerism when Joan was a youngster, and despite being a co-inventor of the X-ray microscope and a well-known physicist, he refused to work on the atomic bomb project in Los Alamos, and also turned down lucrative job offers from defense contractors during the Cold War.

4. John Cadbury

Cadbury Dairy Milk.jpg

If you love Cadbury's chocolates, you definitely owe a note of thanks to the Society of Friends. As a young man, Cadbury hoped to pursue a career in medicine or law. But because Quakers were discriminated against by all of the major universities at the time, John decided to focus on business. Believing that alcohol only exacerbated society's ills, Cadbury decided to focus on a happy alternative: chocolate and drinking cocoas. In addition to his views on temperance, Cadbury was also a bit of an activist. He led a campaign to stop the use of boys as chimney sweeps, and he founded an organization to prevent animal cruelty.

5. James Dean

Picture 1.png

Sent off to be raised by his father's sister in Fairmont, Indiana, James Dean was raised Quaker. And though the faith may not have played the biggest role in his life or career (there are tales that it was through befriending a Methodist reverend that he was encouraged to pursue his loves of bullfighting, car racing and theater), today he's buried in a Quaker cemetery.

6. Edward R. Murrow

Born in North Carolina to Quaker parents. Amazingly, for the first 6 years of his life, the famed reporter grew up in a log cabin without plumbing or electricity. His parents, who farmed for a living, made only a few hundred dollars a year, at least until they picked up and moved to Washington state.

7. Piers Anthony


While agnostic today, best-selling science fiction author Piers Anthony grew up in a fairly devout family. During the Spanish Civil War his parents left young Piers and his sister to their grandparents care, and then went to "fight" in Spain. In his own words, "my parents were helping to keep those devastated children alive, by importing food and milk and feeding them on a regular basis. It was worthy work, and I don't fault it, but there was a personal cost."

8. Judi Dench


The award-winning actress converted to Quakerism after attending a Friends school. According to Quakernet, she was first attracted to the faith because she loved the school uniforms.

9. Annie Oakley

Picture 2.png

The sharp-shooting female who was rumored to split playing cards edge-wise, then shoot through them a few times before they hit the ground, grew up a dirt-poor Quaker. In fact, her early skill with the gun came from having to hunt food for her impoverished family.

10. Bonnie Raitt


In her own words, "I grew up... in a Quaker family, and for me being Quaker was a political calling rather than a religious one."

11. Joseph Lister


The British surgeon who promoted cleanliness and sterility (and for whom Listerine mouthwash is named) grew up in a wealthy Quaker family. Of course, this didn't stop him from being discriminated against. In fact, Lister studied medicine at the University of London precisely because it was one of the only institutions at the time which accepted Quakers.

12. David Byrne


According to, the musician to-be was regularly encouraged by his mother's "tolerant Quaker philosophies." That, along with the constant drone of Scottish and American folk music in the house, supposedly played a large role in his eventual career choice.

13. Cassius Coolidge


I really only included "Cash" Coolidge because I have a fondness for his Dogs Playing Poker prints (one used to hang over my puppy's sleeping cushion in my old house). Still, it's pretty interesting to know that the painter was born to abolitionist Quakers in upstate New York, and that he's oft-credited with creating Comic Foregrounds, or those novelty photo scenes you pay $2 to stick your head into, to make your body look muscle-bound at the beach.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
Original image