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10 People Who Made a Fortune During the Depression

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Even during our country's worst economic downturn, some folks still knew how to make a buck—many bucks, in fact.

1. Babe Ruth

The Sultan of Swat was never shy about conspicuous consumption. While baseball players' salaries were nowhere near as high in the '30s as they are today (adjusted for inflation), Ruth was at the top of the heap. While possibly apocryphal, when Ruth found out that his $80,000 (more than $1 mil today) a year salary was $5,000 more than that of President Hoover, he is reported to have said, "Well, I had a better year than he did."

2. John Dillinger

While not using methods we'd endorse, John Dillinger and his compatriots managed to compile more than $3 million in today's dollars. Robbing dozens of banks and killing police officers in the process, Dillinger is not exactly what we'd call "successful," but the brash, charming, and audacious Dillinger became just the type of anti-hero that the bedraggled, unemployed masses loved. He was shot to death in Chicago by FBI agents in 1934.

3. Michael J. Cullen

A man unfamiliar to most, yet whose modern ideas revolutionized American life, Cullen changed our retail landscape by creating the modern supermarket. A former executive at Kroger Grocery & Bakery Co., Cullen struck out on his own in 1930 after higher-ups rejected his ideas for more suburban, larger, self-serve food markets with room for automobile parking and allowances for new-fangled home refrigeration. Within two years, Cullen's stores (known as King Kullen Grocery) were doing more than $6 million in revenue (more than $75 million today). His motto: "Pile it high: sell it cheap."

4. James Cagney

The diminutive song-and-dance man turned tough guy turned song-and-dance man rose like a rocket through Hollywood in the 1930s. He went from a $500-a-week contract player in 1930 to one of the top ten moneymakers in Hollywood during 1935. In 1933 he was making the equivalent of $40,000 a week. His rise was so fast that he offered to do a few movies for free just to get out of a five-year contract with Warner Brothers.

5. Charles Darrow

monopoly

Finding himself out of work after the crash of '29, Darrow spent a few years perfecting—though some would say pilfering—a little parlor game that eventually came to be known as Monopoly. Within a year of registering the patent, Parker Brothers was selling 20,000 units a year, and Darrow became the world's first millionaire game designer.

6. Glenn Miller

The King of Swing may have been Benny Goodman, but the King of Pop in the 1930s was Glenn Miller. From his humble beginnings as a traveling trombone player—and superb high school football player being named "best left end in Colorado"—Miller rose to put together his first band in 1937. The band fell apart. Undaunted as any good left end would be, he reorganized a new group in 1938 and quickly found success. With hits like "In the Mood," "String Of Pearls," and "Moonlight Serenade," Miller and his band found themselves on radio, in the movies and commanding a salary of nearly $20k a week . In 1942, just at the height of his popularity, Miller disbanded his group and volunteered for the U.S. Army, where he formed a military band to help build morale during the war. He was lost during a flight over the channel from England to France in 1944. The plane was never found.

7. Howard Hughes

hughesSure, all we remember of Hughes is the insanely long fingernails, Kleenex box hats, and storing his own urine in mayonnaise jars, but there was a whole crazy stellar career before that. After the '29 crash, seemingly unfazed, he made Hell's Angels--then the most expensive movie ever--at a cost of $3.8 million. In 1932, at the height of the nation's economic woes, he formed the Hughes Aircraft Company. He built the company into a major-league defense supplier and by the time he died in 1976, his fortune totaled a reported $2.5 billion. Maybe there's something to that whole urine saving thing.

8. J. Paul Getty

An amazing beneficiary of good timing and great business acumen, Getty created an oil empire out an inheritance of $500,000 received in 1930. With oil stocks massively depressed, he snatched them up at bargain prices and created an oil conglomerate to rival Rockefeller. Throughout the 20th century he became a billionaire many times over.

9. Gene Autry

The Great Depression was Gene Autry's golden era. Rising from a local radio yodeler (nearly every station had their own yodeler back then) to a hit machine throughout the decade, Autry appeared in over 40 movies, becoming the top western draw at the box office. The singing cowboy, not content to be just a yodeler, albeit a very successful one, later created a TV and radio broadcasting empire in the Western United States and bought the California Angels.

10. Joe Kennedy

Joe Kennedy, Sr., patriarch of the Camelot clan, built up a tidy sum in the 1920s with a hearty amount of speculation, peppered with insider trading and market manipulation. Unlike many other of his ilk who helped to create the unstable markets that brought about the financial calamities of the '30s however, Kennedy knew when to get out. Out of the stock market, Old Joe invested his money in real estate, liquor, and movie studios, generating gaudy profits and cementing his family's place in the highest financial echelon of American society.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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