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8 Successful People Grateful They Got Canned

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In our tough economic climate, it's worth reminding ourselves that losing a job might not be the end of the world. Sure, it never feels good, but for these well-known folks, getting the boot from their gigs provided the impetus for them to reach even greater successes.

1. Jerry Seinfeld

Remember the ABC sitcom Benson? Seinfeld undoubtedly does. Early in his career he had a small recurring role as a mail boy on three episodes of the show from 1980-81. One day he showed up at work for a read-through, but he couldn't find a script with his name on it. After Seinfeld asked what was going on, an assistant director told him he'd been fired from the show, but nobody had remembered to tell the young comedian. A humiliated Seinfeld trudged out and decided he was through with sitcoms unless he could get more control over the creative process. As you might have heard, he was pretty successful once that eventually happened.

2. Michael Bloomberg

By most any metric, the Mayor of New York is a pretty successful fellow. His $20 billion net worth makes him one of the ten richest people in America, and he can still run for another mayoral term. He wasn't always so successful, though. In 1981, investment firm Salomon Brothers canned him from his partner-level job following a buyout (although Bloomberg got $10 million as a payment for his capital in the firm). Instead of jumping back into another job at an investment bank, Bloomberg took the cash and bet it on an oddball idea he had to use computers to disseminate financial information to investment firms. Good move. The company, Innovative Market Systems, was eventually renamed Bloomberg L.P., and that company is worth somewhere north of $20 billion today.

3. Robert Redford

Before he became the Sundance Kid, Redford needed his dad's help to get a job at Standard Oil. Although he would later reach great heights on the screen, acting like a good employee was one role he never nailed. As Harvey Mackay writes in his 2004 book Fired Up!, Redford served as a "roustabout," an unskilled laborer who did little jobs around the rigs, until he was discovered sleeping in an oil tank he'd been assigned to clean. Instead of canning him on the spot, the company put Redford on probation and moved him to a bottle-washing plant where he drove a forklift. Redford got bored with the job, though, and started doing forklift tricks. One day it literally all came crashing down when Redford took a corner too quickly and overturned his bottle-laden forklift. As Redford dryly remarked to Mackay, "I knew it was the end of my career in that business."

4. Wilco

In 2000 and 2001, the Chicago rock band Wilco recorded an artsy album that departed from the band's previous folk-inflected work. The record, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, didn't sound quite like what the band's label, Reprise Records, was hoping for. Although the album isn't aggressively grating, it wasn't full of the radio-friendly rock that the cash-strapped imprint needed to churn out a few hit singles. Reprise refused to release the album and dropped Wilco from its roster. As part of their severance from the label, the band got to take the master tapes of the record with them.

Without a label to release the album, Wilco decided to simply stream it on their website for free. As critical buzz for the record built, Nonesuch Records (like Reprise, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers) bought Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and gave it a commercial release in 2002. The record was a critical smash; it topped many critics' best-albums lists for the year. It was also a commercial success, selling close to 600,000 copies.

5. Annabelle Gurwitch

Fired.jpgAnnabelle Gurwitch, who hosted Dinner and a Movie on TBS from 1996 to 2002, had at least one show business firing that would have made most people look for a new career. In 2003 she was acting in a play under the direction of her idol Woody Allen when the director suddenly decided he didn't like what he was seeing from Gurwitch. He really, seriously didn't like it. As Allen fired Gurwitch, he launched into a tirade, saying, "What you're doing is terrible, none of it good, all of it bad, don't ever do that again." As if he hadn't said enough, Allen then added, "You look retarded."


Taking that sort of abuse from a hero would be too much for some people to take, but Gurwitch used it as a springboard to a new comedic niche. She started a website that collected other people's stories of being fired, and she later parlayed that into a book, Fired!: Tales of the Canned, Canceled, Downsized, and Dismissed that shared some of her show-biz friends' stories of terrible firings. The book, in which celebs like Bob Saget, Jeff Garlin, and Tim Allen all told their own tales of sudden unemployment, later became the basis for a 2007 documentary of the same name.

6. Rainn Wilson

The actor who plays Dwight Schrute isn't quite as eager-to-please as his on-screen alter ego. In a 2007 interview with New York Magazine, Wilson told the story of working as an events coordinator at a foundation for disabled people. When his boss said, "Jump!" he wanted his subordinates to literally ask, "How high?" Wilson wasn't up for that, and he got fired.

7. Howard Stern

It might be hard to believe, but Howard Stern has been fired for being offensive. While working for NBC's flagship AM station WNBC in New York in 1985, Stern did a bit on his show called (and this is not a joke), "Beastiality Dial-a-Date." Negative public reaction to the skit prompted Stern's firing. Instead of cleaning up his material and trying to start fresh, Stern quickly found a new home on FM radio and remained edgy. It worked. Following a jump to Sirius in 2006, Stern now pulls in as much as $70 million a year for his show.

8. Bill Bellichick

bill-b.jpgBelichick, the glowering, hoodie-wearing architect of three Super Bowl wins with the New England Patriots, had a rough start to his head-coaching career. In 1991 he took over the star-crossed Cleveland Browns, and like so many Browns coaches before him, he just couldn't win. Belichick guided the team to records of 6-10, 7-9, and 7-9 in his first three seasons before riding Vinny Testaverde and the immortal Leroy Hoard to an 11-5 record in 1994. The team even won a playoff game that year. The success didn't last for Belichick, though, as the team crashed back down during a 5-11 debacle of a season in 1995.


After five years in Cleveland, Belichick had a 36-44 record. Owner Art Modell decided he'd seen enough and kicked his coach to the curb, then moved the franchise to Baltimore. Belichick latched on with Bill Parcells again and became the Big Tuna's assistant head coach in New England and then for the New York Jets. He was better prepared for his next shot at a head coaching gig, which came with the Patriots in 2000. Since then he's rung up a 102-42 record with an otherworldly 14-3 playoff record. Not bad for a guy even the Cleveland Browns didn't want.

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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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