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The Quick 8: Eight People Who Have Been Cryonically Preserved (and one who wasn't)

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1. Dr. James Bedford, a psych professor at the University of California, was the first person to ever be cryonically preserved. The choice to be preserved by freezing was entirely his; he even left money for a steel capsule and liquid nitrogen in his will. So, when he died on January 12, 1967, his family abided by his wishes. It was a big day in the cryonics community, and they still refer to January 12 as "Bedford Day." My favorite part of the whole thing is the title of the article Time magazine did on event: "Never Say Die." Bedford was switched to a different tank in 1991 and it would appear that everything has held up thus far.

2. Dick Clair Jones was in the television industry: he was a producer, actor and writer who had a hand in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, The Facts of Life and Mama's Family. He was also really interested in cryonics and was a member of the Cryonics Society of California. In 1988, he died of AIDS-related infections and was immediately put on ice – literally, as you can see from the picture. There's an account of the whole process here, which is fascinating, if not bizarre.

3. Thomas K. Donaldson, a mathematician, had ideas about death that were even stranger than cryonics. He believed that even though people were "dead," their brains continued to exist and have functionality and we just don't have the technology to access it yet. For his sake, let's hope that's true; he died in 2006 and is assumed to have been cryonically preserved. He seemed to be pretty confident that he would be back someday; in a 1982 interview, when asked for a piece of wisdom to pass on to cryonicists, he said, "I'm sure that any profound piece of wisdom I might have would seem really rather stupid in 300 years. So I think it would be better for me to say nothing, so I don't feel ashamed of myself in 300 years."

4. FM-2030. Yeah, that was his real name. He was born Fereidoun M. Esfandiary, but changed his name to reflect his goal of living to be 100 (2030 would have been his 100th birthday). He also predicted that 2030 would be "a magical time. In 2030 we will be ageless and everyone will have an excellent chance to live forever. 2030 is a dream and a goal."

He died in 2000 at the age of 69 when he succumbed to pancreatic cancer. He was cryogenically frozen because he believed that people would soon develop synthetic organs and body parts that would make the notion of death a thing of the past. He called the pancreas a "stupid, dumb, wretched organ," which kind of made me laugh.

5. Dora Kent is a sad tale (maybe). Her son, Saul, was a board member of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation (most of these cryogenically-frozen people were frozen by Alcor and are stored in their facilities). In 1987 at the age of 84, she came down with a fatal case of pneumonia and was unable to recover. When it looked like death was upon her, she was brought to the Alcor facilities so they could freeze her when she died. And they did, with no doctor present. When a coroner later inspected her headless body (Alcor removed the head for scientific purposes, I guess), he first agreed with the pneumonia assessment, and then reversed his decision and said he thought she was murdered. Certain metabolites found in her body led him to believe that she was alive when they started to freeze her. He demanded Dora's head for further testing, and Alcor refused to produce it. Some of the Alcor members were arrested, but nothing came of it and no one was ever charged with anything.

6. Jerry Leaf was Alcor's vice president until his death in 1991, so it only stands to reason that he was frozen when he died of heart attack.

7. Ted Williams is without a doubt the most famous cryogenically frozen person (that we know of). But the circumstances surrounding his freezing are a bit controversial. His son, John-Henry Williams, was adamant that his father wanted to be preserved to be brought back in the future, and wanted his whole family to follow suit so they could be reunited when technology and medicine made it possible. However, Ted's will said he wanted to be cremated, and his daughter by his first wife took John-Henry to court over the matter. John-Henry produced a "family pact" signed on a cocktail napkin, which seems pretty strange to me. Why would you write your last wishes on a cocktail napkin and expect it to hold up in court? Anyway, after much debate over authenticity, the napkin-pact was allowed and Ted was frozen. Which leads us to number eight...

8. John-Henry Williams. Yep, Ted's son stayed true to his word. Despite a bone marrow transplant from his sister, John-Henry died of leukemia on March 6, 2004, and joined his dad at Alcor in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Noticeably missing from the list? Walt Disney. Despite the persisting rumors, Walt was not frozen. After his death in 1966, Walt was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.

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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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