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Recluses: Private, Exploited, or Self-Destructive?

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Sometimes very private people wish to withdraw from the world, and they have that right. Yet some cases may be more than just personal choice. When there is a lot of money at stake and a very few people have access to an elderly recluse, the temptation to take complete control may be too much to resist. Still, the privacy issues surrounding such cases make investigations difficult.

A couple of weeks ago, the story of Sogen Kato hit the news. Kato was on record as turning 111 years old, which made him the oldest man in Tokyo. City officials went to congratulate him on the milestone, but were rebuffed by family members, who said the patriarch "doesn't want to see anybody." Welfare officials made several visits before police broke into the bedroom to see Kato. The man was found to be nothing but a mummified skeleton. Authorities estimate that he had been dead for as long as thirty years. Kato's relatives said he had locked himself away and refused to let anyone in. However, millions of yen in pension funds had been deposited into Kato's account and withdrawn by the family over the years.

An 1871 account related how an unnamed wealthy recluse shut himself away in a hotel and gave the power to deal with visitors to the hotel manager. Years later, officials forced their way into his room and found that the man had changed his mind about leaving the world behind years before, but the hotel manager had kept him locked away anyway.

Huguette Clark recently turned 104 years old. She is an heiress, the only surviving child of copper tycoon and Senator William Andrews Clark, who was once thought to be the second richest man in America. He was 67 years old when Huguette was born to his second wife, Anna. William Clark had other children from his first wife, and Huguette had an older full sister who died at a young age. Huguette Clark is estimated to be worth about $500 million. She owns several multi-million dollar estates which sit empty. She owns two floors of her New York City apartment building, where she and her mother lived for many years. The building is still listed as Clark's residence, but she has been living at a Manhattan hospital for the past 22 years. Yes, 22 years, because Clark feels comfortable and safe there, she doesn't have to socialize in order to have her health monitored, and she can pay for it.

Huguette Clark was married for a couple of years in the 1920s, but has otherwise stayed out of the spotlight her entire adult life. The last known photograph she ever allowed was taken in 1930. After her divorce, Clark lived in the New York apartment with her mother Anna until her death in 1963. Since then, she has spoken to very few people and has seen even fewer. Even business transactions took place through closed doors. Clark's longtime friends and caretakers have all died with the exception of 89-year-old Suzanne Pierre, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease.

Clark's money is looked after by her accountant, Irving Kamsler, and her lawyer, Wallace Bock. Both men became the beneficiaries of another elderly client upon his death, inheriting $100,000 each and an apartment in New York after his will was changed several times in short order. Bock recently arranged for the sale of some of Clark's possessions. After the recent stories of Clark's life and finances were published, Adult Protective Services in New York opened a case to determine if Clark is being properly cared for and whether she is being exploited. Distant relatives have requested that a guardian be appointed to watch after Clark's interests. She reportedly gave one of her longtime nurses nearly $2 million just this past week.

The Bouvier family was fabulously wealthy until the Great Depression. Some of the younger generation recovered pretty well: Jacqueline Bouvier married John F. Kennedy and then Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis, and her sister Caroline Lee married a publishing executive and then a Polish prince, Stanis?aw Albrecht Radziwi??. Jacqueline's aunt, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale didn't fare as well. The aspiring singer was left relatively little of her father's wealth and cut off from her husband's fortune after their divorce, but she received a 28-room mansion in East Hampton called Grey Gardens. She lived there with her daughter, who was also named Edith. "Little Edie", as the daughter was known, had been a model and aspiring actress when her mother asked her to come home and care for her in 1952. For decades, Big Edie and Little Edie kept to themselves, feeding off each other's eccentricity. The two women were rarely seen outside of Grey Gardens until inspectors from the local Health Department came to the mansion in 1971. They found the two Ediths living in squalor, with most of the dilapidated mansion's rooms shut off and their living quarters piled high with garbage and inhabited by cats. fleas, opossums, and raccoons. The women refused to cooperate with health authorities, and the story became a public scandal. The extended family was shocked and embarrassed; they had apparently assumed that Little Edie was taking care of Big Edie. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis paid for a professional cleanup project in 1972.

At the same time, Lee Radziwill was in discussions with David and Albert Maysles about producing a documentary film on the Bouviers, meaning Lee and Jackie. The Maysles passed on that idea, but were interested in filming Big Edie and Little Edie. The result was the 1976 documentary Grey Gardens. The mother and daughter enjoyed their opportunity to be seen on the silver screen, although the film crew had to wear flea collars on their legs while filming at Grey Gardens. The movie became a cult hit, which spawned a Broadway musical and a 2009 HBO movie starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore.

After Big Edie died in 1977, Edith Bouvier Beale II resumed a regular life. She gave away the cats, cleaned up the mansion, and made appearances at New York nightclubs. After selling Grey Gardens, she retired to Florida where she lived a normal, relatively subdued life until her death in 2002.

Howard Hughes was a filmmaker, aviator, businessman, and the most notorious recluse of all. He built his fortune in the 1920s and '30s, married twice but had no children, and bought his privacy in a most public way. In 1947, Hughes' obsessive-compulsive disorder took over his when he locked himself in his screening room for four months, insisting that none of his aides look at him or speak to him. He sat naked and watched movies day after day. Afterward he withdrew from the world, conducting business through his close associates, only emerging briefly in 1972 to expose a biography by Clifford Irving as a hoax. Hughes lived in hotels, which he bought one after another, to ensure his privacy. In his later years, Hughes surrounded himself with Mormons because he trusted them, although he was not a member of the faith.

During this time, Hughes kept doctors on staff, but did not follow their advice. He received no psychiatric help. He was so wealthy and powerful that no one dared cross him, even for his own health and safety. Hughes second wife, Jean Peters, divorced him 1971 -she had not seen her husband for years. He died in 1976 of what was determined to be kidney failure. Hughes weighed 90 pounds and had hypodermic needles embedded in his arm, as he had been addicted to morphine for years, prescribed for injuries suffered in plane crashes. His appearance had changed so much since he appeared in public that his fingerprints were taken for identification. Hughes' estate of $2.5 billion was claimed by many people, and was eventually distributed to 22 cousins after years of litigation.

The desire to be left alone can work against a person's best interests, but who is to say when the line is crossed, especially for those who have no close relatives? Sometimes it is hard to tell whether a person's self-destruction is a lifestyle choice or is aided and abetted by those who stand to gain.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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