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The Early Jobs of 23 Famous People

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Thinkstock

Summer is here, and that means so are summer jobs. While lots of young people find work as lifeguards or camp counselors, just as many are forced off the beaten path to find their first paychecks. Don't worry if you get stuck with an odd job that might not totally dovetail with your life goals, though. Lots of wildly successful celebrities have had some strange jobs before hitting it big. Here are just a few quirky vocations held by some of your favorite celebs:

1. Orlando Bloom's first job was working at a skeet shooting range as a clay pigeon trapper when he was just 13.

2. Beyonce Knowles' mother owned a salon when the future pop star was growing up, so the aspiring singer picked up some extra cash by sweeping up hair.

3. As a teenager Mick Jagger worked as an ice cream salesman. After entering the London School of Economics, Jagger also worked as a porter at a mental hospital.

4. Jagger wasn't the only member of the band to have a gig before the Stones. Keith Richards worked as a ball boy at a tennis club.

5. It's tough to envision Colin Powell as anything other than a general or diplomat, but when he was growing up in the Bronx, he worked in a baby furniture store. Powell even picked up a bit of Yiddish on the job since that was the preferred language of his employers.

6. Warren Buffett had cash going through his hands even as a young man; his first job was at his grandfather's grocery store, although he eventually worked his way up to a gig at J.C. Penney.

7. Former NFL running back Edgerrin James had a particularly grueling summer job as a kid: he worked 16-hour days loading watermelons into a truck near his Florida home to save up the cash to buy his first car.

amy-adams.jpg8. Actress Amy Adams needed cash to buy a car after high school, so she spent two months working as a Hooters girl.

9. Of course, some early jobs predict the future rather well. Before rising to prominence with Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne worked in a slaughterhouse.

10. As a young man, Matthew McConaughey wanted to get away from Texas for a while, so he spent a year in Australia. To support himself, he took on a number of jobs, including one that involved shoveling chicken manure.

11. When country star Clint Black was 14, he got a job selling newspaper subscriptions door-to-door in Houston.

12. Gwen Stefani earned some cash in her early days mopping floors at a local Dairy Queen.

13. Rod Stewart had a number of jobs before his music career took off, but gravedigger was undoubtedly the creepiest.

14. Need a rat catcher? Call Warren Beatty. He caught rodents to pay the bills before hitting it big.

15. Jimmy Stewart was a man of many talents, from acting to being an Air Force general. As a young man, though, he had a job painting the lines on roads and also spent two summers as a magician's assistant.

16. James Brown had a number of jobs before he became the Godfather of Soul, including one in which he racked balls at a poolhall.

17. You never know how a weird job might pay off. Singer Chubby Checker had a job as a chicken plucker at Fresh Farm Poultry in Philly. His boss would let Checker sing to entertain the customers. When the boss realized just how talented his chicken plucker was, he arranged for Checker to have a recording session with Dick Clark.

bill-cosby.jpg18. Bill Cosby played four sports in high school, but he still found time to sell produce, shine shoes, and work as a stock boy at a supermarket.

19. Tom Cruise's family moved around a lot when he was young, but during one stint in Louisville he picked up some extra cash as a paperboy.

20. Ed McMahon knew his voice was going to be valuable early on. As a teenager he worked as a carnival barker and a bingo caller, and he later put himself through college working as a pitchman for vegetable slicers on the boardwalk in Atlantic City.

21. Bill Murray never worked as a greenskeeper, but he did have an interesting job selling chestnuts outside of a grocery store.

22. Brad Pitt did all sorts of things to earn a buck while he tried to start his acting career, including dressing as a giant chicken to promote an el Pollo Loco restaurant.

23. When Christopher Walken was a kid, he joined the circus. He took an unpaid job with a small act and even did a little lion taming, although he later claimed the lion was very old and "really more like a dog."

How'd you spend your summers growing up?

This article originally appeared in 2009.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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