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The Quick 10: The Unbelievable Early Jobs of 10 Successful People

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As the saying goes, "Everybody's gotta start somewhere," but during these trying times, many people are simply looking to start. It's comforting, then, to hear about the unusual first jobs of people who went on to bigger and better and more lucrative things.

1. Michael Dell

The founder and CEO of Dell Computers began working at the age of 12 as a dishwasher at a Chinese restaurant in Houston, Texas, earning $2.30 an hour. He used this money to fund another hobby – trading on the stock market. Because what else was there to do before the Internet besides manage your investments?

2. Sylvester Stallone

Known internationally for acting like he could take a punch – and looking the part – Stallone had a fairly, ahem, Rocky road to stardom. Struggling to find work in New York City, he took on any menial job that would keep him from living in the local bus station, like cleaning the lion cages at the Central Park Zoo. Eventually he landed his first acting role in a softcore porn flick called "The Party at Kitty and Stud's" (later re-cut and released as "The Italian Stallion" to capitalize on Stallone's success) and was paid $200 for two days work. You might be sensing a theme here – breaking into the acting business before the advent of reality television was hard work. Speaking of which...

3. Mark Burnett

Yes, even the infamous producer of "Survivor" and godfather of reality television had a strange path to stardom. Born in London's east end, Burnett joined the British Army when he was 17, saw action in Northern Ireland and the Falklands, and left the armed services in 1982 a decorated war hero. At the behest of a friend, he moved to Los Angeles and became the nanny for a wealthy Malibu family, which is probably where he got the idea to strand a bunch of spoiled brats on an island surrounded by cameras for our amusement.

4. Vic Armstrong

Though his name might not be as well-known as others on this list, Armstrong is an Oscar-winning stunt double, director and pioneer of many currently used stunt techniques. His first job was helping his father, a blacksmith and farrier (horseshoe) for the British Olympic team from 1948 to 1964, in the family business. He eventually won small stunt roles on movies during the '60s and '70s thanks to his horsemanship, but it wasn't until he began work on the set of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" – when everyone, including the directors, continued to mistake him for Harrison Ford – that he hit the big time, becoming Ford's personal stunt double.

5. Mick Jagger

Before he began a music career that would span five decades, Jagger shared a flat with his friend Keith Richards in a Chelsea, England, suburb while taking business classes at the London School of Economics. He made a living working as a porter at the Bexley Mental Hospital in Kent before quitting in the fall of 1963 to focus full-time on the Rolling Stones, presumably after dealing with one last "19th Nervous Breakdown."

6. Harrison Ford

Every "Star Wars" fanboy and girl knows that Ford got his big break in Hollywood when he was "discovered" building cabinets for the home of director George Lucas in the early 1970s. But the Chicago native had actually moved to Los Angeles ten years earlier to try his hand at acting, landing bit parts in TV shows like "Gunsmoke" and "Mod Squad" before taking up carpentry to support his wife and two sons. His claims to fame as a self-taught carpenter include building a sun deck for actress Sally Kellerman ("M.A.S.H.") and a recording studio for musician Sérgio Mendes.

7. Madeleine Albright

The former U.S. Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton, Albright sold bras at a local department store in Denver, Colorado.

8. George Steinbrenner

Though he was the son of a wealthy shipping magnate, the late New York Yankees owner's father didn't believe in the concept of "allowances" for his children. In order to learn the value of hard work and make a quick buck, the future Boss began selling his family's chicken and their eggs to neighbors in their Bay Village, Ohio, area when he was 10.

9. Stephen King

Quite possibly one of the creepiest novelists out there (oh, and his stories are pretty scary, too), King had difficulty finding an outlet for his writing after graduating from the University of Maine in 1970. To support his wife and young daughter, he worked the night shift at an industrial laundromat, and then as a janitor, before finding a job as an English teacher at a local high school.

10. Barack Obama

As a teenager in Hawaii, President Obama spent time scooping ice cream at Baskin-Robbins. Because of this experience, he's said he can't stand the stuff. This evidence might satisfy some, but I won't believe it until I see his work certificate.


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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]