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7 Famous New Year's Babies

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It’s been said that it's good luck to be born on New Year’s Day. While we can't say whether being born on January 1st will actually pave the path to riches, we can tell you that those with the earliest birthday of the year are certainly in good company.

1. Paul Revere (1735)

You’re all familiar with Paul Revere and his Midnight Ride, even if it was only the fictionalized version written in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem about the revolutionary fighter. While Revere wasn’t the only rider that night, he is rightfully the most famous character involved with the incident. After all, he was the one who created the idea of using lanterns hung in the steeple as a communication system, and he was also the one who had to row across the Charles River, past the HMS Somerset, despite a ban on crossings at that time of night.

Although he didn’t ride down the street shouting, “the British are coming,” like Longfellow’s poem suggests, he and the other riders did quietly notify patriotic-sympathizers along their route that the “Regulars are coming out.” Before reaching Concord, Revere was captured by the British, but another rider made it.

In the years after the revolution, Revere’s silversmithing business suffered, but he was successful in a new market—bell making. His company would cast over 900 bells.

2. Betsy Ross (1752)

Apparently, New Year’s Day was a popular birthday for icons of the Revolutionary War. Of course, while most Americans recognize her as being the creator of the first American flag, this credit is debated by historians. The thing is, there is no evidence to prove conclusively that she was or was not involved with creating the flag.

Betsy never bragged about it during her lifetime and the only record of her involvement with the flag came from her grandson, William J. Canby, who heard the tale from his aunt. Even this account doesn’t cast her as designing the flag from scratch. According to Canby’s account, Washington and another man approached Ross and presented her with a potential flag design for her to put together. Betsy looked at the design and provided a few critiques—most notably, that the stars should be five-sided rather than six-sided—and the flag was then redesigned by Washington. She was then given the revised mock up and asked to turn it into an actual flag.

Whether or not Mrs. Ross actually sewed the first flag, we do know she was born on January 1.

3. Pierre de Coubertin (1863)

While the name might not be as familiar as many of the others on this list, you certainly are familiar with his creation—the modern day Olympic Games. Coubertin was fascinated by ancient Greece and believed that by reorganizing the Olympic Games in the modern day, nations could learn more about each other and peace could be more easily achieved. He believed that organized sporting events can cause “moral and social strength” for those involved.

Surprisingly, the idea of an international amateur sporting competition was very poorly received at first. In fact, it was only due to Coubertin’s persistence that the new Olympic Games were ever put together. The hard work paid off though, and the 1896 Summer Olympics in Athens were the first such event held since the third century A.D.

Later on, Coubertin went on to win a Gold Medal for literature, back when the games still had art competitions, for his poem Ode to Sport.

4. J. Edgar Hoover (1895)

Even if you aren’t very familiar with the history of the FBI, you still know the name J. Edgar Hoover. That’s because the FBI’s first Director was a major player in the American government from the time he was first appointed to head the Bureau of Investigation (the FBI’s predecessor) back in 1924 until he passed away in 1974.

While he was critical in building the FBI into the central crime-fighting agency it is now and helping to take down some of the biggest criminals in American history, he remains a controversial figure. That’s because he pushed for investigations into people believed to be subversive, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Charlie Chaplin. These inquiries used illegal methods such as wiretapping, burglary and infiltration, and the organization has been accused of much worse.

Since Hoover's days, congress has implemented a ten-year limit on FBI Director terms, although this time period can be extended by the Senate. Even in Hoover’s time, he shouldn’t have been allowed to work as long as he did, given that the government had a mandatory retirement age of 70. But Lyndon B. Johnson waived this restriction in 1964, just for Hoover, who was then allowed to serve his title “for life.”

5. J.D. Salinger (1919)

Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye is considered an American classic, but you almost never hear about his other novels or the author himself. That’s because The Catcher in the Rye was his only novel. Other than that, Salinger printed a few short stories and four novellas. The notorious recluse published his last work in 1965 and his last interview was in 1980.

Since his last interview, Salinger’s contact with the public was largely limited to time spent in court. He fought against unwanted looks into his private life, fighting against biographies and memoirs about him printed by his ex-lover and his own daughter. Shortly before he passed away, he filed another lawsuit against a writer who used one of his characters from The Catcher in the Rye.

6. Jerry Robinson (1922)

Image courtesy of Dan Chusid

Here’s another name that might not be immediately recognizable, but everyone knows his creations: Joker, Two-Face and Alfred Pennyworth. Sherrill David Robinson, better known as Jerry Robinson, was one of the first artists hired to work on the Batman series and while he didn’t come up with the original idea, he did develop some of his most famous acquaintances and enemies.

Later in life, Robinson was known for his work trying to secure artist rights. He was a crucial supporter of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in their fight with DC Comics to receive compensation for creating Superman. In 1978, he founded the Cartoonist & Writers Syndicate/CartoonArts International, which now has more than 550 members from 75 countries.

In 2004, Robinson was inducted into the Comic Book Hall of Fame. Sadly, the artist passed away December 7 of this year in New York.

7. Grandmaster Flash (1958)

Born Joseph Saddler, Grandmaster Flash is one of the pioneers of hip hop and using the turntable itself as an instrument. He was so revolutionary, he and his group, the Furious Five, were the first hip hop/rap artists to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back in 2007.

Grandmaster Flash is credited with coming up with a number of turntable innovations that are still widely practiced today, including backspinning, punch phrasing and scratching. Although the technique of scratching was invented by Grand Wizzard Theodore, Grandmaster Flash is said to have perfected it and brought it to new audiences.
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Are any of you Flossers New Year’s Babies? If so, let us know if you feel like the birthday has brought you good luck. (Also: Happy Birthday!)

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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