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What is "People who are not Ken Jennings"?: Other Notable Jeopardy! Contestants

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Four years ago today (June 2, 2004), an unassuming Mormon with boyish good looks and a pistol-quick reaction on the buzzer began his famous winning streak on Jeopardy! When his original appearance ended, Ken Jennings won $2,520,700 (the highest total winnings in non-tournament play) in an unprecedented 74 games. Additionally, Ken holds the record for the longest winning streak in the game show's history, and the most money won in a single game: $75,000. Since making his mark, Ken appeared on the Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions, landed several endorsement deals, wrote books, and garnered the greatest prize of all: writing a regular column in mental_floss magazine.

Undeniably, Ken Jennings earned his place in the Jeopardy! Hall of Fame, but other contestants (pre and post the era of Jennings) have demonstrated amazing intelligence and hefty winnings themselves.

Frank Spangenberg: The Top Cop
frank.jpgUntil 2003, Jeopardy! winning streaks ended after five games. Frank Spangenberg, a New York City cop with an intimidating physical presence and a moustache that lives in its own time zone, holds the record of winning the most money in five regular appearances: $102,597. During his run in 1990, Jeopardy! also had a $75,000 limit for regular season winnings, and if a contestant happened to win more in five games, the surplus went to charity. So, Spangenberg made a hefty donation, and after that the rules changed to cap winnings off at $100,000. In 1997, the cap was increased to $200,000, plus a pair of cars for five time champions. Spangenberg returned to the Jeopardy! scene to compete in several tournaments, perhaps to prove once and for all that he didn't keep the answers hidden in his magnificent moustache.

Not a Boys Club
Intimidating ladies who mastered the buzzer also hold records in Jeopardy! history. Rachael Schwarz, who credits her success to her love for reading, was the first woman to win the Tournament of Champions (in 1994), and she competed in future tournaments, impressively in all. Robin Carroll, a homemaker from Georgia, won her original five games as shutouts in season 16, and became the 2001 International Champion after previously winning the 2000 Tournament of Champions.

Mad Memory Skills
Not so much a record as an incredible feat of memory skills and intelligence, Eddie Timanus, a five-time-champion in 1999, was the first legally blind contestant to compete on the show. Before game play began, Eddie received the category names written in Braille and a computer keyboard to type out his response to Final Jeopardy, but no other special favors. He was invited back to the annual Tournament of Champions (like many five-time winners) and made it to the semifinals.

A Three-Way Tie!
On March 16, 2007, millions of fans were shocked when the first time in Jeopardy! history, a three-way tie resulted after all three contestants answered Final Jeopardy! correctly. All three contestants won $16,000 and came back to compete the next day as winners. The odds of this happening on Jeopardy!? One in 25 million. The factoid that led to this surprise finish:


The clue: WOMEN OF THE 1930s.
The answer: "One of the men who shot her realized when he saw her body that she'd often waited on him at a cafe in Dallas."
The question: "Who is Bonnie Parker?" [of Bonnie and Clyde fame]

Biggest. Winner. Ever.
The record for highest total winnings on Jeopardy! now belongs to Brad Rutter. In 2004, Jeopardy! held a 15-week-long Ultimate Tournament of Champions, inviting more than 100 champions from years past to compete. Ken Jennings had a bye until the Finals. On May 25, 2005, Brad Rutter—a previous five-time champion himself and the first player to win a million dollars at the Masters Tournament in 2002—took the title, defeating Jennings and Jerome Vered, who held the record for one-day winnings ($34,000) for ten years. Brad's grand total: $3,255,102.

prisoner-of-trebekistan.jpgWhat is, "I do"?
Bob Harris, a five-time-champion and competitor in the Masters Tournament and the Ultimate Tournament of Champions, authored Prisoner of Trebekistan, a part memoir, part "how-to" account of succeeding on the show. (He also has some exhaustive theories about The Sopranos finale.) One fascinating anecdote from the book talks about the time Harris presided over the wedding of fellow champion Dan Melia on the Jeopardy! soundstage. While Alex Trebek sat in the audience, Bob stood at the sacred podium. The bride, groom, and their parties stood at the contestant's podiums. The game board featured wedding-themed categories and answers, and the music consisted of Jeopardy!'s opening theme and the "think music."

Under WEDDINGS for $200, the answer read: "A man customarily says this if he should consent to have this woman to be his wedded wife." Question? "What is I do"? Alex Trebek was the official witness.

Sara Newton is an occasional contributor to Her last story was an interview with Peter Sagal, host of NPR's 'Wait Wait"¦Don't Tell Me!'

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]