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5 Famous Missing Fingers

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You can do a lot with less than the normal complement of fingers -- including becoming a guitar legend! Here are five famous examples of people achieving fame despite missing some digits!

Jerry Garcia's missing finger1. Jerry Garcia

Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia lost two-thirds of his right middle finger as a child, while steadying wood his father was chopping. (A similar scene was shown in The Royal Tenenbaums to explain Margot's prosthetic finger.) Despite the accident, Garcia went on to play a mean guitar, and often showed off his missing finger in a sort of salute to fans. Today the Barley Mill Pub (a virtual museum of Dead memorabilia) in Portland, Oregon features an illustration of Garcia's right hand, encouraging us all to keep on truckin' regardless of life's little wood-chopping accidents.

James Doohan's missing finger2. James Doohan (Scotty on Star Trek)

James Doohan landed at Normandy on D-Day as part of the Royal Canadian Army. After taking out two snipers, Doohan was hit by six rounds from a Bren light machine gun fired by a sentry (in other words, friendly fire). He took four bullets in one leg, one in the chest (stopped by a silver cigarette case), and the final round amputated his right middle finger. Trek fans who haven't noticed the missing finger have a good excuse: special stunt hands were used in closeups whenever Scotty operated the transporter.

Django Reinhardt's missing finger3. Django Reinhardt

Jean Baptiste "Django" Reinhardt played banjo, guitar, and violin starting in childhood, but his fame as a performer didn't come until after he lost the use of several fingers. At age 18, Django was severely injured in a fire -- he and his wife sold paper and celluloid flowers, which likely fed the fire that consumed their caravan one night. His right leg was paralyzed and the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand (the hand he used to fret the guitar) were badly burned and remained partially paralyzed for the rest of his life. Django painfully relearned the guitar, developing a new playing style to work around his bad fingers -- becoming a jazz legend in the process.

Tony Iommi's missing finger4. Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath)

The blokes from Black Sabbath were genuinely working-class, holding tough industrial jobs in Birmingham, England. Guitarist Tony Iommi was working his last day at a sheet metal factory when an industrial accident severed the tips of the middle and ring fingers on his right hand -- because he's left-handed, the right hand was what he used to fret the guitar. Iommi was heartbroken, but after hearing about Django's recovery, Iommi became inspired. First he tried learning to play guitar right-handed -- no dice -- then he re-strung his guitar with extra-light strings and fashioned prosthetic fingertips from plastic covered in leather. Using his "Iron Man" (okay, "Plastic Man") style artificially enhanced fingers, Iommi rocked on.

Jesse and Frank James5. Jesse James

Although accounts differ, some historians believe that infamous outlaw Jesse James was missing the tip of his left middle finger. (Some think it was a different finger, or that there was no missing finger at all. But anyway....) It's unclear exactly how the fingertip was lost, but it's a good bet that a gun was involved. After Robert Ford killed Jesse James in 1882, a photo showing the body had James's left hand concealed under his right, causing some to believe that the photo was fake and Jesse James lived on. An exhumation in 1995 proved that the body was indeed Jesse James, but no mention was made of his missing finger. Pictured at right: Jesse and his brother Frank James.

If you enjoyed this list, check out Neatorama's Missing Body Parts of 10 Famous People which includes a great story about Saint Catherine of Siena's finger!

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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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