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5 Things You Didn't Know About Bill W.

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TIME called William Wilson one of the top heroes and icons of the 20th century, but hardly anyone knows him by that name. Instead, he's remembered as Bill W., the humble, private man who co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous during the 1930s. Let's take a look at a few things you might not know about the man who valued his anonymity so highly.

1. He Had a Good Partner

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Bill W.'s partner in founding A.A. was a pretty sharp guy. Robert Holbrook Smith was a Dartmouh-educated surgeon who is now remembered by millions of recovering alcoholics as "Dr. Bob." Like Bill W., Dr. Bob had long struggled with his own drinking until the pair met in Akron in 1935. Bill W. took his last drink on December 11, 1934, and by June 10, 1935—what's considered to be the founding date of A.A.—Dr. Bob was through with the sauce, too.

The two men immediately began working together to help reach Akron's alcoholics, and with the help of Dr. Bob's wife, Anne, helped perfect the 12 steps that would become so important to the A.A. process. Eventually Bill W. returned to Brooklyn Heights and began spreading their new system to alcoholic New Yorkers.

2. The Rockefellers Gave Him a (Very) Little Bit of Help

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Getting a big nationwide organization off the ground is no easy task, so after A.A. had been up and running for three years, the group wrote a letter to one of the nation's most famous teetotalers, J.D. Rockefeller.

They didn't ask for any cash; instead, they simply wanted the savvy businessman's advice on growing and funding their organization.

Rockefeller, though, was quite taken with the A.A. and pledged enough financial support to help publish a book in which members described how they'd stayed on the wagon. Rockefeller also gave Bill W. a grant to keep the organization afloat, but the tycoon was worried that endowing A.A. with boatloads of cash might spoil the fledgling society. Instead, he gave Bill W. and Dr. Bob $30 apiece each week to keep A.A. up and running.

3. He Was (Almost) a Lawyer

When Bill W. was a young man, he planned on becoming a lawyer, but his drinking soon got in the way of that dream. He attended Brooklyn Law School, but in his very last semester he showed up for his finals so soused that he couldn't even read the questions.

Bill W. managed to reschedule the exams for the fall semester, and on the second try he passed the tests. He then asked for his diploma, but the school said he would have to attend a commencement ceremony if he wanted his sheepskin. Bill refused. As he later wrote in his memoir Bill W: My First 40 Years, "I never appeared, and my diploma as a graduate lawyer still rests in the Brooklyn Law School. I never went back for it. I must do that before I die."

Bill W. did almost get a law degree after all, though. In 1954 Yale offered to give him an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, and the school even agreed to make out the diploma to "W.W." to maintain his anonymity. Bill W. passed on the degree, though, after consulting with A.A.'s board of directors and deciding that humbly declining the award would be the best path. He requested that Yale offer the degree to A.A. as a whole, but the school declined to honor that wish.

4. He Became a Wall Street Hotshot

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After leaving law school without an actual diploma, Bill W. went to work on Wall Street as a sort of speculative consultant to brokerage houses. Although he was often dead drunk during work hours, he had quite a bit of success sizing up companies for potential investors. He and his wife Lois even traveled around the country throughout the 1920s looking for prime investment opportunities in small companies. Eventually, though, the stock market collapsed in 1929, and once the money stopped rolling in bankers had little incentive to tolerate the antics of their drunken speculator.

5. He Tried to Get Sober or Stay Sober in Other Ways

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Before and after Bill W. hooked up with Dr. Bob and perfected the A.A. system, he tried a number of less successful methods to curb his drinking. In the 1950s he experimented with LSD—which was then an experimental therapeutic rather than recreational drug—but wasn't a huge fan of the chemical. Bill later said that he thought LSD could "be of some value to some people and practically no damage to anyone."

Bill W. had also attempted "the belladonna cure," which involved taking hallucinogenic belladonna along with a generous dose of castor oil. This system might have helped ease the symptoms of withdrawal, but it played all sorts of havoc on the patient's guts. That's how it got the affectionate nickname "purge and puke."

If there's someone you'd like to see profiled in a future edition of '5 Things You Didn't Know About...,' leave us a comment. You can 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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]