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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


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
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]