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7 Famous Hoarders

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Do you have trouble throwing stuff out? Afraid to let go of that old remote control for the broken TV you've got stored away in the basement just in case you might need it someday? You might be suffering from disposophobia, sometimes called pathological hoarding. Of course, there's a big difference between needing to exorcise your clutter and hoarding, pack rat-style. Disposophobia is a serious form of OCD, and one not to be taken lightly, as the following seven people prove.

1. & 2. Homer and Langley Collyer

The Collyer brothers have been the subjects of movies, plays and a recent novel by E.L. Doctorow. With American roots tracing back to the days of the Mayflower, Homer and Langley Collyer were well-off members of Manhattan's elite. After their parents' death in the 1920s, the brothers withdrew from society and divided their time between their family's Manhattan and Harlem brownstones. Appropriately enough, thanks to Homer (who was also crippled and blind) and his brother Langley, disposophobia is also sometimes referred to as 'Collyer brothers syndrome.'

Why? Because as the brothers became more and more reclusive, rumors began circulating that the houses were filled with riches and the brothers set booby traps to protect their valuables. Then, in 1947, a neighbor called police complaining of a pungent odor. Inside the Harlem brownstone police found Homer Collyer dead. His corpse was amid tons of junk, including an early X-ray machine, the jawbone of a horse and bundles upon bundles of old newspapers.

His brother Langley was nowhere to be found, and a nationwide manhunt was conducted. Weeks later, when half the brownstone had been cleared of 180 tons of junk, a worker discovered Langley's decomposed corpse buried beneath a stack newspapers. He had been dead for weeks and rats had eaten most of his body. It was ultimately determined that Homer died of starvation when Langley, who fed his crippled, blind brother, was crushed to death under—what else?—a bunch of junk.

3. & 4. The women of Grey Gardens

little-edie-grey-gardensIn the early 1970s, two women related to Jackie Onassis were the subjects of the critically acclaimed documentary, Grey Gardens, about eccentric behavior. The women, Edith Bouvier Beale and her mother, Edith Ewing Bouvier, were former New York socialites who spent their days holed up in a decrepit East Hampton mansion.


When the Suffolk County Board of Health raided their house, they found piles of garbage amid human and animal waste. It was said that only three of the mansion's 28 rooms were used, while the others were occupied by hundreds of cats, possums and raccoons.


When word of the deplorable conditions got to Jackie-O, she and her then-husband Aristotle Onassis paid $32,000 to clean the house, install a new furnace and plumbing system, and cart away 1,000 bags of garbage. When Grey Gardens filmmakers Albert and David Maysles began to shoot there in 1973, the mansion was so infested with fleas that they had to wear flea collars around their ankles.

5. Edmund Trebus

trebusTV viewers all over the UK knew compulsive hoarder Edmund Trebus for his eccentric habits and snarky English temper. Featured on the 1999 television documentary A Life of Grime, Trebus would often tell friends and neighbors to "stick it up your chuffer!" especially when they complained about the odor emanating from his house. The majority of his household junk was acquired from his neighbors' trash, and Trebus went to great lengths to collect any material related to his favorite musician, Elvis Presley. He had an expansive Elvis collection that included most of the King's original records. But it was the flotsam and jetsam that took up most of his five-bedroom Victorian villa at Crouch End in north London: window frames, motorbikes, scaffolding poles, tree-trunks, For Sale signs (complete with posts), fridge-freezers, even a mortuary table.


The smell his neighbors complained about was a result of the bags of rotting vegetables (mostly grown in his own garden!) piled from floor to ceiling in every room. At the time of his death, Trebus's North London home was so stuffed with junk that he was living in a small area on the floor.

6. Ida Mayfield Wood

Picture 5In the late 19th century, all of New York's high society knew Ida Mayfield. Her charm and beauty attracted many suitors and Ida eventually married Benjamin Wood, publisher of the New York Daily News. But the couple's marriage was an unhappy one and Benjamin fathered a child by another woman.


To make up for his womanizing, Benjamin would give his wife large sums of money to deposit into her own savings account. By the time of Benjamin's death in 1900, Ida was a very wealthy and powerful woman. The influential pages of the New York Daily News were now under her control. But after the financial panic of 1907, Ida grew increasingly paranoid about her finances and withdrew from society.

She lived in squalor in a couple of rooms at New York's Herald Square Hotel and never went outside. By the time of her death in 1932, Ida had hoarded nearly $1 million in cash, stuffed in pots and pans inside the hotel room. Among other valuables found inside were a diamond necklace hidden in a Cracker Jack box. Ida was even found to have $10,000 in cash sealed around her waist.

7. Bettina Grossman

Picture 4New York's famed Chelsea Hotel, the place everyone from Mark Twain to Janis Joplin once called home, was also home to an unknown artist by the name of Bettina Grossman. Bettina had been living in the Chelsea as one of its artists-in-residence for 30 years and had amassed an entire lifetime of artwork. The fruits of Bettina's labor lay stashed away in hundreds of boxes inside her tiny two-room apartment.


When filmmaker Sam Bassett, another artist-in-residence at the Chelsea, discovered Ms. Grossman, she was literally sleeping on a deck chair in the hallway. Bassett became inspired by Bettina's artwork and eventually convinced her to display her various collages and mixed media portraits. He even helped her build shelves to organize it all. Bettina agreed, and Bassett's 2007 documentary, Bettina, chronicles the eccentric artist's long road to personal recovery.

Last year, Ms. Grossman fell and broke her hip, and is now living a Brooklyn nursing home. Still, her artwork is never far behind. She's brought a few boxes of her work with her to the home.

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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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May 23, 2017
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