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5 Things You Didn't Know About Nick the Greek

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Are you worried about putting up a five-spot to play in your office's NFL picks pool this weekend? Does the idea of putting down $10 on a blackjack hand make you queasy? We're not sure these anecdotes will make you feel any better, but if you don't want to play games of chance yourself, here are a few interesting facts about one of history's most legendary gamblers, Nick "the Greek" Dandolos.

1. He Really Was Greek

Nick the Greek was born Nicholas Andreas Dandolos in Crete at some point around the turn of the 20th century. (Dandolos was cagey about revealing his age. While some friends insisted he was born in 1883, he claimed to be just 60 when he died in 1966.) Although he was born into a wealthy family, Dandolos was a diligent student and earned a degree in philosophy at the Greek Evangelical College "“ a degree that would later earn him the nickname "The Aristotle of the Don't Pass Line." He didn't stay in Greece and become the next great Greek philosopher, though. Dandolos' family sent him to the United States with an allowance of $150 a month.

Dandolos, of course, used the allowance to bankroll his early gambling adventures. After a short stay in Chicago he moved to Montreal and began betting on horse races. As it turned out, Nick the Greek had a knack for picking the ponies; he allegedly turned his allowance into $500,000 in just one racing season.

2. He Was Equally Good at Winning and Losing Money

According to Dandolos, he took the half-million he'd won playing the horses and returned to Chicago. In the Windy City he learned how to shoot craps and play cards, two pursuits that led to him promptly dropping the entire gigantic bankroll during a run of bad luck.

This loss sort of set the stage for the rest of Nick the Greek's life. He never really seemed all that interested in money; what he really wanted from gambling was the action. Although he estimated he won and lost somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 million total in his life, he also added that he went from rags to riches and back around 73 times over the course of his career.

How could someone build such huge fortunes and then just fritter them away? One of Nick the Greek's most famous quotes offers a quick explanation: "The next best thing to playing and winning is playing and losing."

3. He Could Run a (Poker) Marathon

In 1949, Nick the Greek called up famed casino owner Benny Binion to ask for Binion's help in finding a heads-up poker game against one of the world's best high-stakes players. Binion agreed to help set up the game against Johnny Moss, but on one condition: the entire one-on-one match be played in the lobby of Binion's casino, where the public could watch.

Binion ended up getting more publicity for his casino than he'd bargained for. Dandolos and Moss played each other constantly for five whole months. The only breaks in the action came when the two players had to sleep, and they hopped from one poker format to another. After five months, Moss finally nailed Dandolos on a particularly large five-card stud hand. The exhausted Nick the Greek stood up from the table and famously said, "Mr. Moss, I have to let you go," shook Moss' hand, and retired from the game.
Some observers estimated that Moss had taken $2 million off of Dandolos, while Moss later claimed he'd pegged the Greek for $4 million.

The real winners were poker fans, though, as the wild popularity of this marathon session among spectators later inspired Binion to start the World Series of Poker.

4. He Didn't Help the Early Movie Business

While Nick the Greek loved poker and betting the don't-pass line at craps, his favorite pursuit was supposedly faro, a largely obsolete card game that was popular in the Old West. Dandolos could go on long faro binges that nearly equaled his poker marathon. At one point Nick the Greek arranged for movie producer and Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle to stake him for a three-month faro bender in Reno. The cards weren't falling for Nick the Greek, and Laemmle ended up losing every dime he put up to back Dandolos.

5. He May Have Shown Einstein the Town

Dandolos was a popular, garrulous fellow, so when big names came to visit Vegas, friends would occasionally arrange for Nick the Greek to show the tourists around. One possibly apocryphal story tells of how Dandolos gave Albert Einstein the grand tour of Vegas during Einstein's tenure at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton.

As the story goes, Dandolos didn't want to have his gambling cronies mock Einstein for being a scientist, so he introduced the physicist as "Little Al from Princeton" and explained to his friends that Little Al "controlled a lot of the action around Jersey."

Although it's impossible to know if that story actually happened, Nick the Greek definitely interacted with at least one brilliant scientist. Nobel-Prize-winning physicist and Manhattan Project researcher Richard Feynman wrote in his autobiography about how Dandolos taught him his betting system of winning by avoiding the obvious bets at table games.

'5 Things You Didn't Know About...' appears every Friday. Read the previous installments here.

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]