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Elvis Presley: World’s Best Car Buyer

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Elvis Presley was known for his generosity, but he didn’t just stop at free show tickets or 500% tips at restaurants. One of Elvis’ favorite ways to show his appreciation was to drop a cool $11k (we’re talking the ‘60s and ‘70s here, so don’t laugh) on a new car. His first big Cadillac purchase was a Pepto-pink Caddy for his mama, Gladys, who was presented with the extravagant gift in 1955. She couldn’t drive, but hey, it’s the thought that counts.

The cotton candy-colored car was just the beginning. From that moment until his untimely death on August 16, 1977, the King bought an estimated 100+ Cadillacs and Lincolns for friends, family, and even total strangers. Here are just a few of those stories:

A Seriously Happy Birthday

A bank teller named Mennie Person happened to be in the right place at the right time in 1975. She was window shopping at a car dealership in Memphis and noticed Elvis’ custom limo parked there. He was inside giving the necessary details on yet another mass Cadillac purchase. As she was admiring his luxurious ride, Elvis came out to talk to her. “He said, ‘That one’s mine, but I’ll buy you one,’” Person said. He also found out that her birthday was two days away and presented her with “a substantial” check, saying that she needed some new clothes to go with her new car.

As Seen on TV

In January 1976, Elvis was on vacation in Colorado to celebrate his 41st birthday. Perhaps feeling like he wanted to give some gifts to commemorate the occasion, Elvis went to Kumpf Lincoln-Mercury in Denver and purchased a handful of Caddies and a couple of Lincolns. The lucky recipients? Three policemen, a doctor, and a newscaster on a local TV station. Anchor Don Kinney’s gift happened after he gave a report on Elvis’ buying spree. As anchors tend to do, Kinney finished the story with a quip: “Elvis, if you’re watching, I wouldn’t mind an economy car.” As a matter of fact, Elvis was watching. He immediately called the station and said there was a car waiting for Kinney if he wanted it. Convinced a friend was playing a joke on him, Kinney hung up on the King - several times. He was finally convinced it was the real deal when Detective Ron Pietrafeso, one of the other car recipients, got on the phone and assured him that Elvis was really on the line.

TCB with Karate

Elvis practiced Karate since his Army days, and in the early ‘70s, he contacted Memphis instructor Kang Rhee to see if he would be interested in continuing his training. Rhee agreed, but had Elvis complete his training in a class with other students. Over the course of about four years, Elvis took classes and was awarded an eighth degree black belt. Grateful for the normalcy, maybe, Elvis gifted Rhee with one of his own customized Cadillacs in 1973. Rhee now runs “Elvis Karate.” You should probably experience his website.

Other people who received a set of wheels: Elvis’ doctor, dentist, jeweler, hair stylist, valet, bodyguards and his maid. In fact, maid and cook Mary Jenkins, said she received a total of six cars from him over a period of 14 years.

For his generous gift giving practices, a Memphis dealership allegedly presented Elvis with a plaque for being the “World’s Best Car Buyer” that was engraved with the names of the 31 people he had purchased cars for through that dealership alone.

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]