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9 Famous College Dropouts

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Conventional wisdom tells us that a college degree will get you much further than only a high school diploma. But what about those who choose to cut out while pursuing their higher educations and go it alone, free from the constraints of academia? Do they ever prosper? Here are some individuals who succeeded, and how.

1. Steven Spielberg

Unlike Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and other film school-trained directors, Steven Spielberg was thrice denied entry into USC's elite directing program due to his C-average. He was eventually admitted into the film program at California State University, Long Beach, but dropped out in 1968 to make a 22-minute film entitled Amblin. It was that film that landed him a television-directing contract with Universal, making Spielberg the youngest director ever to be signed for a long-term deal with a major Hollywood studio. In 2002, Spielberg completed his degree with Long Beach State via independent projects. He also received an honorary degree earlier this year from BU.

Candid video of Spielberg receiving his degree from BU:

2. Harry Truman

harry-truman-pictureThe 33rd President of the United States is also the only one post 1897 who didn't earn a college degree. Truman dreamt of attending college at West Point, but family financial difficulties forced him to work instead. Among Truman's early odd jobs were railroad timekeeper, bank clerk and mailroom attendant for the Kansas City Star. Truman did study law for a couple of years at the Kansas City Law School (now the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law), but eventually dropped out due to time constraints. At the age of 60, the college honored the former President by inviting him to become a member of their Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, which Truman accepted. Today there are two colleges named after Truman. Northeast Missouri State University was renamed Truman State University in 1996 to honor the only Missourian to become President, and in Chicago, Illinois there's Harry S. Truman College.

Harry Truman on education: "When you get an education, that is something nobody can take from you—money is only temporary—but what you have in your head, if you have the right kind of head, stays with you."

3. Ellen DeGeneres

ellen_degeneresBorn and raised in Metairie, Louisiana, it makes sense that Ellen attended the University of New Orleans. What doesn't make sense is that this smart cookie only lasted one semester before taking a job as a clerk at her cousin's law firm. From there she held a series of David Sedaris-esque jobs: working as a bartender, waitressing at TGIF's, shucking oysters, painting houses, and even selling clothes at the local Merry-Go-Round at the Lakeside Shopping Center in New Orleans.

Here's a hilarious soundbite of Ellen giving a commencement speech at Tulane earlier this year (my personal fav quote: "I'm not saying you wasted your time or money, but look at me, I'm a huge celebrity.")

4. Bill Gates

Bill_GatesBill Gates may have had the SAT scores to get into Harvard, (he scored a 1590 which corresponds to an IQ of 170) but he certainly didn't have the stamina to stay in school. Gates spent most of his time using the school's computers, and eventually left the renowned Ivy League institution his sophomore year to start Microsoft (then called Micro-Soft). Not all of Gate's time at Harvard was for naught, however. In fact, it was at Harvard that he met Steve Ballmer, who later became the CEO of Microsoft. Gates returned to his alma mater 33 years later in June of 2007, where he received an honorary doctorate.

Gates speaking after receiving his honorary doctorate:

5. Ted Turner

ted_turner-afThe founder of CNN was also a bit of a tomcat as an undergrad. Turner's father was a wealthy billboard magnate and was able to give his son the best education money could buy. Ted attended Brown University, where he majored in classics, a choice that horrified his father. Ted ultimately switched his major to economics, but was expelled for having a female student in his dorm room. Turner was never an outstanding student but managed to apply what little knowledge he learned form those boring economics courses into his father's business. He took over his father's company at the age of 24 and turned it into the global enterprise it is today.

Turner on studying Classics at Brown: "I would have not been as successful if it had not been for my classical background... it made me a better businessman."

6. John Glenn

glenn300The first American to orbit the Earth also studied chemistry at Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio. It was there that he received his pilots license in 1941. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Glenn dropped out of college and enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He flew 59 combat missions over the South Pacific during World War II, and continued flying military aircraft well into the Korean War. His wingman on a few of those Korean missions was none other than future baseball hall-of-famer, Ted Williams. Glenn never finished college, but it was his expertise as a fighter pilot that impressed NASA enough to pick him as one of the original astronauts for their Mercury Project.

John Glenn on his alma mater: "I've always believed that New Concord and Muskingum College are the center of the universe, because if you get your start here, you can go anywhere."

7. Jack Kerouac

jackToday he's known for his spontaneous prose, best represented in 1957's On the Road, but early in his life, Jack Kerouac was just another jock on a football scholarship. Kerouac, who received an athletic scholarship to attend Columbia University in New York, argued constantly with his coach and was benched through most of his freshman season. His football career ended after he cracked his tibia, and he subsequently dropped out. Although his time there was brief, Kerouac would meet Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady at Columbia. These early relationships would forge the foundation for what would become The Beat Generation.

8. James Dean

james-dean-729587Shortly after graduating from Fairmount High School in Indiana, James Dean moved to California and enrolled in Santa Monica College. At SMC, Dean begrudgingly majored in pre-law to satisfy a controlling father, but eventually changed his major to drama and transferred to UCLA. His father disapproved, of course, and the two were estranged for the rest of Dean's life. While at UCLA, Dean beat out hundreds of actors for the role of Malcolm in Macbeth. In January, 1951, he dropped out of UCLA to pursue a full-time acting career. His first professional gig was for this Pepsi commercial.

9. Woody Allen

woody_allenWoody Allen always wanted to make movies and after high school, enrolled in the film program at New York University. But Woody could never stay focused and spent most of his time writing jokes for local newspaper columnists. He was eventually expelled from NYU after failing a film course and briefly attended City College of New York, but dropped out. He may not have been a committed student, but making $75 a week, the 19-year-old had good reason to drop out, as he was making far more than his parents writing comedy bits for the radio personality Herb Shriner.

Woody Allen (stand-up) on his college experience: "I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam; I looked into the soul of the boy next to me."

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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]