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3 Famous Mustaches

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It's said that the clothes make the man, but what about the mustache? Does it make the man, or does the man make it? Sort of a "chicken or the egg" question. Here we have three men who are forever linked with their facial hair, and the relationships between the man and the mustache are much more complex than one would think.

1. Hitler and the Toothbrush

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Before the Blitz, before the Holocaust, before a patch of hair situated directly above the center of the lip became as much a symbol of evil as the devil's horns, the mustache worn by Hitler was called the Toothbrush. While Hitler and Charlie Chaplin are its most famous wearers, the Toothbrush has a long history behind it. The "˜stache first came to Europe at the end of the 19th century on Americans, who wore it as a response to Europeans' beloved primped and pimped Kaiser mustache. Elaborate and ornate was out, streamlined and efficient was in. In terms of personal grooming, the Toothbrush mustache was the assembly line, the steam engine, and the cotton gin all rolled into one, a revolutionary invention that would topple the old ways.

Shortly after its introduction, the Toothbrush was adopted by Hans Koeppen, a Prussian military lieutenant who was something of folk hero, and exploded into German culture. There are conflicting theories as to whether Hitler grew one then to latch onto the trend, or if he trimmed down his Kaiser during the World War I because it didn't fit under the gas mask he had to wear in the trenches. Either way, by the time he took lead of the Nazi Party, Hitler had grown attached to the Toothbrush and when one of his underlings advised he grow it out "at least to the end of the lips," he responded, "If it is not the fashion now, it will be later because I wear it."

Of course, the best laid plans of mustaches and men often go awry. After WWII, the toothbrush was taboo, a hairy scarlet letter, the stylistic equivalent of shouting anti-Semitic slurs in a crowded theater. Today, the mustache belongs to Chaplin and Hitler alone. To grow it to emulate the former, though, still incites all the rage and hatred the world shares for the latter. Hitler was certainly not the only one to wear the noble little hair square, but he made the mustache, burned it into our collective consciousness, and forever ruined it for the rest of us.

2. Ambrose Burnsides and the Sideburns

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Ambrose Everett Burnside wore many hats, but only one style of facial hair. He was Union Army general in the American Civil War, leading successful campaigns in North Carolina and East Tennessee. He was a businessman, serving as president of the Cincinnati and Martinsville Railroad, the Indianapolis and Vincennes Railroad, and the Rhode Island Locomotive Works. He was Governor of Rhode Island for three terms and a Senator for two. He was the first president of the National Rifle Association.
Despite all this though, many of us only remember one thing about him: sideburns are named after him.

With Burnsides, the man and the hair (yes, technically it's not a mustache, so sue me) are so intertwined that it's hard to tell where one ends and one begins. Burnsides' sideburns are untouchable, the archetypal chops from which sprang everyone from Elvis to Luke Perry. He defined the style (the exact configuration of hair he wore, basically a full beard with a clean-shaven chin, is now known as friendly mutton chops), and, in turn, it defined him. Burnsides, you see, wasn't all that great at all the jobs he held. He was a mediocre businessman, did nothing of note in political office and despite some success on the battlefield, he was disliked by Abraham Lincoln and hated by the rest of the military brass. Those wonderful whiskers saved his legacy, though. Every man (and, unfortunately, woman) who lets a patch of hair grow in front of their ears owes him a great debt and the world will always remember him for at least one thing.

3. Fu Manchu and the"¦oh, you know

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The evil genius Fu Manchu: antagonist for a series of novels and films; one of the earliest examples of the super villain; namesake of the upside-down hair horseshoe we know as the Fu Manchu mustache.

Today, we associate the mustache we two types of people: movie characters that are gross stereotypes of Asians, and guys from "˜70s rock bands (or contemporary bands that ape "˜70s rock bands). Whenever we see a member either group, we know the mustache and we know the man, even if we've never actually seen or read anything featuring him. The mustache is Fu Manchu for many people.

Here's the kicker though, Fu Manchu didn't have a mustache. In his first appearance, in the novel The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, he was described as "tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan." That sounds like the Fu we know, but when the hero gets his first look at the good doctor later on, he says, "I looked up to his face "“ his wicked, hairless face."

Wait, what?

Turns out that Warner Oland, the first actor to portray Dr. Fu Manchu on film, had a mustache and kept it while he played the part (a la Cesar Romero in the Batman TV series). For the sake of continuity, Boris Karloff wore a fake mustache when he took the part. Fans dug it and the "˜stache became iconic. So, novelist Sax Rohmer's most famous character became forever known for something his creator never intended "“ a mustache that has become a cultural force in its own right.

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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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