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13 Former Ad Men Who Found Fame in Other Fields

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Let's take a look at some real life Don Drapers who went on to find fame in other fields. Here are a few famous folks who got their starts penning slogans and writing jingles.

1. James Patterson

When Patterson's literary career was taking off, he was also a pretty big wheel in the ad industry. He served as chairman of the J. Walter Thompson/North America agency, which had over 1,000 employees, while he was writing Along Came a Spider and Kiss the Girls. Even if you're not familiar with Patterson's writing, you probably know some of the slogans he wrote, particularly "I'm a Toys "˜R' Us kid."

2. John Hughes

Before the director created classic 1980s teen comedies, he worked writing ad copy. He got his start at DDB Needham Worldwide and later jumped to the Leo Burnett Company. Some of his notable clients included Johnson Floor Wax and Edge shaving cream. (The old Edge "credit card shaving test" spots were Hughes' creation.) When Hughes was 29, he submitted a comedic story to National Lampoon that later became the basis for the Vacation series of movies, he decided to leave the ad world in favor of writing comedy.

3. Dr. Seuss

The good doctor pulled in the then-considerable sum of $12,000 a year as his book-writing career was starting up by drawing cartoon advertisements for Flit, a bug spray marketed by Standard Oil. The campaign "Quick, Henry, the Flit!" with Seuss illustrations ran for 17 years.

4. F. Scott Fitzgerald

Before Fitzgerald was chronicling the lives of socialites during the Jazz Age, he was trying to sell them something. After unsuccessfully looking for a job in the newspaper industry, a young Fitzgerald found work writing slogans for streetcar cards for the Baron Collier agency. One of his major coups in the job was writing a slogan for the Muscatine Steam Laundry in Muscatine, Iowa. The slogan "We Keep You Clean in Muscatine" earned Fitzgerald a raise. His boss noted that it was "perhaps a bit imaginative, but still it's plain there's a future for you in this business. Pretty soon this office won't be big enough to hold you."

5. Salman Rushdie

Remember J. Walter Thompson, the agency James Patterson ran? Rushdie failed a copy test there but caught on at the agency Sharp McManus Ltd. Rushdie worked on and off as a copywriter between 1970 and 1981, and he later observed, "[I[t taught me to write like a job. If you have"¦the client coming in that afternoon for his new campaign, you can't not have it. You have to have it. What's more, it has to be good."

6. Joshua Ferris

The bestselling author of Then We Came to the End went into the ad business right out of college. He first worked for the Chicago firm Davis Harris Dion, where his first assignment was writing a brochure for a poultry feed additive. He later worked for Draft Worldwide before going back to school to get his MFA in writing.

7. Peter Hodgson

The guy who helped create Silly Putty cut his teeth in the ad business, too. Hodgson was a copywriter when he met James Wright, a GE engineer who had discovered a most unusual compound. Hodgson packed it in eggs, called it Silly Putty, and started marketing it. The toy was quickly a success, and when the former ad man died his estate was worth around $140 million.

8. Helen Gurley Brown

Although she never went to college, the former secretary found a job as a copywriter after winning a contest sponsored by Glamour. Her copy was so good that she ended up jumping to Kenyon & Eckhardt, where she was the West Coast's most highly paid female ad writer. She then spent three decades as editor of Cosmo and frequently appeared on The Tonight Show.

9. Sir Alec Guinness

Obi-Wan Kenobi may have had the Force, but he couldn't use it to write ads. When Guinness was 18 he took a job as a junior copywriter at the London firm Ark's Publicity, but he didn't like the work and quickly shifted his focus to acting.

10. Herb Peterson

Many of us are probably a few pounds heavier thanks to Peterson's creation: the Egg McMuffin. When Peterson was working as an ad exec at Chicago's D'Arcy Advertising he came up with McDonald's first national slogan, "Where Quality Starts Fresh Every Day." Peterson eventually owned a string of six McDonald's franchises in California, and he began tinkering with a way to turn eggs Benedict into a sandwich. He debuted his creation at one of his Santa Barbara restaurants in 1972, and fast food breakfast hasn't been the same since.

11. Gary Dahl

Only an ad man could have invented the Pet Rock. The original idea for the fad was that Dahl would write an instruction manual for owning a pet rock that could be sold as a gag. However, once people got attached to the humor in carrying the rocks themselves around, the fad took off. Dahl eventually sold over 1.5 million rocks.

12. Dashiell Hammett

After the mystery virtuoso left his job as a Pinkerton detective but before he began writing stories and novels, he supported himself as an advertising copywriter.

13. Thomas S. Monson

Monson, the current President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, got his start as an advertising executive for newspapers in the 1940s.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”