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5 Things You Didn't Know About Katharine Graham

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Katharine Graham helmed The Washington Post from the 1960s through 1991, and under her steady, resolute leadership the paper was able to break huge stories like the Nixon White House's cover-up of the Watergate break-in. For many years she was the only female head of a Fortune 500 company, so let's take a look at five things you might not know about this journalism and business pioneer.

1. She Had a Sad Rise to the Top

Graham's father, Eugene Meyer, bought the Post in 1933 and served as the newspaper's publisher until Harry Truman asked him to become the first head of the World Bank in 1946. Meyer named Katharine's husband, lawyer Philip Graham, as the paper's new publisher.

Graham was a capable publisher, but he had to constantly fight his bipolar disorder. By 1963 his psychological problems had become so severe that he had to seek inpatient treatment. During one stay away from his therapy center, he committed suicide by shooting himself at the family's farmhouse.

Rather than ceding control of the paper, Katharine Graham took over as the de facto new publisher of the Post following her husband's death.

Although it was unheard of for a woman to run such a large enterprise at the time, she attacked her new job with such tenacity that she eventually won over her newsroom and corporate offices. Graham later wrote of her ascent, "What I essentially did was to put one foot in front of the other, shut my eyes and step off the ledge. The surprise was that I landed on my feet."

2. The Black and White Ball Honored Her

In 1966, Truman Capote threw his Black and White Ball, a 500-person masked shindig that brought some of New York's most elite celebrities to the Plaza Hotel in disguise and either black or white garb. The guest of honor? Graham. The party was one of the most famous social events of the Sixties; invitations were so hard to secure that people later said Capote had invited 500 guests and made 15,000 enemies. Graham and Capote spent nearly two hours at the party's door shaking hands and giving kisses to senators, princesses, maharajas, and children of presidents.

Although Graham was the guest of honor, she didn't know many of Capote's famous friends, so the author had to introduce her to much of the guest list. Capote later admitted he threw the ball in part as a way to introduce Graham to New York society. (She even joked later that it was an "odd, overaged and gray coming-out party.") Although they weren't previously tight, Capote and Graham became close friends following the ball. Their relationship later took a turn when Capote revealed details of her private life to the media, though.

3. She Would Get Her Hands Dirty

Graham may have wielded a lot of power as the Post's publisher, but she wasn't hesitant about chipping in where she was needed. In 1974 a Newspaper Guild strike left the Post with less than 20 percent of its normal staff. Graham helped out by answering phones for the circulation and classified desks. In one particularly memorable episode, she took a classified ad for a used Mercedes. After reading the ad back to the seller, he remarked that she must be over-qualified for the job and that answering the phone wasn't her regular work.

After she agreed he asked, "You could be anyone from a secretary to"¦are you Katharine Graham?"

Graham simply replied, "Yes, I am."

4. The White House Couldn't Scare Her

It's safe to say the Nixon White House was no fan of Katharine Graham. In 1971 the Post published the Pentagon Papers, the controversial secret history of the Vietnam War prepared by the Pentagon. A federal court had already blocked the New York Times from publishing the papers, but Graham felt that the story was important "“ it showed that the government hadn't been entirely honest about the situation in Vietnam "“ and didn't threaten our national security.

The Nixon White House pushed hard for the Post to kill the story. It threatened the Washington Post Co.'s television licenses and spooked Graham's lawyers so badly that they advised her not to run the story. But she ignored their counsel.

Nixon may have applied the pressure, but Graham ended up getting the last laugh. She gave her newsroom a free hand to investigate the 1972 burglary at the Watergate Hotel, and Nixon eventually resigned the presidency as the result of the Post's dogged investigation of the break-in and ensuing cover-up.

5. She Was Really Tight With Warren Buffett

In 1973 business guru Warren Buffett bought a large block of Post stock, and he and Graham soon became good buddies. Although Graham was 59 years old and Buffett was a married man, a romance blossomed. Instead of being inconspicuous, the couple was fairly forthcoming about details of their relationship. Buffett spent so much time at Graham's Martha's Vineyard mansion that he kept clothes in the closet, and his wife, Susie, even wrote Graham a letter giving the publisher permission to date her husband.

Buffett eventually found a new love interest, Astrid Menks, in the late 1970s. Although Graham and Buffett's romance eventually fizzled, the pair remained business partners and chums.

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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]