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Money for (Practically) Nothing: 4 Very Big Paychecks for Very Little Work

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Work hard, get promoted, succeed in your new post, and eventually you'll start earning the big money. This progression seems like a firmly ingrained part of the American Dream, and it's certainly worked for a lot of people.


However, these steps aren't absolutely necessary to fatten your bank account, as Washington Mutual CEO Alan Fishman learned last week. When WaMu failed and was seized by government regulators, Fishman had been on the job for just 17 days. However, he was contractually guaranteed $11.6 million in cash severance on top of the $7.5 million signing bonus he got for taking the job. Basically, Fishman netted just under $20 million for 17 days of work, which is a pretty nice setup for the head of a collapsing corporation. (In Fishman's defense, it's tough to blame WaMu's failure on his leadership alone; it seems highly unlikely that any CEO, however determined, could crash such a large thrift in just two weeks.)

Fishman's not the only person to reap huge rewards for relatively little work. Here are few other well-compensated employees who didn't have to put in too many years of service:

1. Michael Ovitz

ovitz.jpgAfter co-founding Creative Artists Agency in 1975, Ovitz quickly skyrocketed through the ranks of entertainment agents until he established himself as one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. In 1995, though, he left CAA to become president of Disney. Ovitz's tenure at Disney was stormy; he clashed with CEO Michael Eisner, who didn't share Ovitz's penchant for delegation. Ovitz also racked up a $6 million tab for various expenses ranging from renovating his office, buying Lakers tickets, and purchasing a BMW. It quickly became obvious that Ovitz wasn't going to be a great fit at Eisner's Disney, so the board terminated his contract after just 16 months. While Ovitz put in more work that Alan Fishman did at WaMu, he also received a lot more cash: a severance package of stock and cash that was worth around $100 million at the time. As Disney's stock price rose, though, so did the value of the package; at one point Ovitz's take might have been as much as $140 million for those 16 months of work.

2. Billy Dee Williams

Critics raved about Aaron Eckhart's turn as Harvey Dent in this summer's The Dark Knight, and most couldn't help but mention that it was a marked improvement over Tommy Lee Jones' campy portrayal of Two-Face in 1995's Batman Forever. williams-dent.jpgHowever, Jones wasn't the only man to portray Dent in that run of Caped Crusader films. Billy Dee Williams had the role of Dent in Tim Burton's 1989 film Batman. Although the role was a fairly minor one in that film, Williams allegedly took the part with the understanding that he would reprise the character in a sequel in which Two-Face would be one of Batman's antagonists. To this end he had a pay-or-play clause inserted in his contract that basically assured that if the Harvey Dent/Two-Face character appeared in a future Warner Bros. Batman film, Williams would play the role. If the director chose to cast another actor in the part, the studio would have to cough up a buyout to Williams.

In the end, that's exactly what happened: when Tim Burton left the series' helm, Joel Schumacher took over and wanted to cast Jones in the part. Williams received a cash buyout to not be in Batman Forever, a deal most of the principals in the critical disaster probably wish they'd been offered themselves.

3. Carl Pavano

carlpavano.jpgWhen a professional baseball player signs a new deal, he's pretty much guaranteed to pull in the cash regardless of whether or not he plays. If you want proof, just mention the name Carl Pavano to New York Yankees fans and watch as their faces contort in terror. After an early stint in Montreal and three fairly strong seasons in Florida, Pavano signed a four-year contract worth $39.95 million with the Yankees before the 2005 season. He then got injured. Frequently. The pitcher's ill-fated tenure in the Bronx included pretty standard baseball injuries like an elbow strain and some problems with his throwing shoulder, but he also had some booboos that made Yankees fans wonder if he might be cursed, including two broken ribs in a car crash and a disabled-list trip for bruised buttocks. In all, the Yankees shelled out that $39.95 million for Pavano to make 26 starts over the four-year span. To make matters worse, on the rare occasions when Pavano was healthy he wasn't very good at baseball. His best season with the Yankees saw him compile a 4.77 ERA and allow 1.47 baserunners per inning he pitched. Even Mike Hampton, baseball's other pricy-but-fragile starter, has to shake his head at those numbers.

4. Edward McSweegan

Edward-McS.jpgWhile he may not be as high profile or as well-paid as the other names on this list, McSweegan may have found the sweetest deal an average guy could find. In a coup ripped directly from one of George Costanza's daydreams, McSweegan claimed that he did nothing for seven years while employed as a scientist at the National Institutes of Health. In 2003 McSweegan told the Washington Post that he hadn't really been given any job responsibilities since 1996. Prior to that, he had been a researcher and program officer on Lyme disease, but he was removed from that position in 1995 for arguing with a sufferers' support group. Although he had a title as director of the U.S.-Indo Vaccine Action Program and a list of nominal duties associated with that role, McSweegan claimed that he only carried out the tiniest of tasks like ordering coffee. In exchange, he received a salary in the neighborhood of $100,000.

When the NIH vehemently disputed McSweegan's story that he simply went to work and did nothing all day, he maintained that he never received any assignments. McSweegan would show up, sit in his office, and read to kill time. He took up fiction writing to fill his workdays and published a pair of novels he allegedly wrote while at the office. He told CBS in an interview that he also joined a health club near work "just to sort of break up the day."

The most amazing part of McSweegan's story isn't that he managed to stay employed through this seven-year period, but that he received positive performance reviews from his superiors. He wryly explained to CBS, "I guess I'm good at doing nothing."

Ethan Trex co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys.

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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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