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10 Famous People Who Turned Down a Knighthood

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Of all the honors that the Queen of England bestows on her subjects, a knighthood is easily the most coveted. To British citizens, few titles could be greater than having a “Sir” or “Dame” in front of their name. So what kind of person would turn down such a title? Surprisingly enough, many notables have done so. Here are some of them.

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1. David Bowie

A few rock stars have been knighted, including Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Elton John and Sir Mick Jagger – much to the anger of his fellow Rolling Stone, Keith Richards, who felt that Jagger should have declined … like another of Sir Mick’s friends, David Bowie. Bowie turned down a knighthood in 2003. “I would never have any intention of accepting anything like that,” he said. “I seriously don't know what it's for. It's not what I spent my life working for.”

2. Vanessa Redgrave

The Oscar-winning actress is often considered one of the “grand Dames” of the British stage. But unlike Dame Judi Dench and Dame Helen Mirren, Redgrave actually turned down the title in 1999. Known for supporting various left-wing and humanitarian causes, she might have thought (like many others) that a knighthood would make her too much a part of the establishment. Still, she was happy to be awarded the next-highest honor, a CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire).

3. L.S. Lowry

The artist, famous for paintings of the Lancashire industrial scene, turned down more honors from the Queen than any other individual – a total of five, including an OBE in 1955, a CBE in 1961 and a knighthood in 1968. Always a friend to the working class, he turned down the honors because, according to a friend, he did not want to “change his situation.”

4. Alfred Deakin

The Australian statesman turned down a knighthood in 1887, when Australia was still a colony of Great Britain. He went on to become one of Australia’s founding fathers (it became a nation in 1901) and serve as Prime Minister three times. It seems that his refusal of a knighthood was due to a combination of humility (he would turn down several honors) and his preference for Australia becoming a republic, severing the last of its political links to the British Empire. Australia continued to award knighthoods (conferred by the Crown) after winning independence from Britain, even though many saw them as a remnant of the colonial past. Though it has still not become a republic, Australia finally stopped awarding knighthoods in 1983.

5. Robert Morley

The actor and playwright, famous for playing a variety of rotund eccentrics, accepted an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1957, but turned down a knighthood in 1975. Other actors to turn down knighthoods included Trevor Howard, Alistair Sim and Paul Scofield.

6. Aldous Huxley

The essayist and author (Brave New World) refused a knighthood in 1959, only four years before his death. Random fact: Huxley, C.S. Lewis and John F. Kennedy all died on November 22, 1963.

7. Doris Lessing

When she was young, the Nobel Prize-winning author was an ardent communist, rebelling against the monarchy and the British political system. In 1993, at the age of 74, she refused to be made a Dame. “Surely," she said, "there is something unlikable about a person, when old, accepting honors from an institution she attacked when young?” Some years earlier, she had turned down an OBE, as the honor came from a “non-existent empire.” In 2000, however, she accepted a Companion of Honor (CH), claiming to prefer it because “you’re not called anything."

8. Henry Moore

The great sculptor, a major figure in the modern art movement, was always keen to remember his roots as the son of a Yorkshire coal miner. Hence, he turned down a knighthood in 1951 because he didn't want to be seen as an establishment figure.

9. Rabindranath Tagore

One of India’s great hyphenates – spiritual man, the first non-European to win a Nobel Prize (for literature, in 1913), poet, songwriter, dramatist, novelist, painter, educator – Tagore was offered a knighthood by King George V in 1915… and accepted it. However, he renounced his knighthood in 1919, following the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, in which hundreds of Indians, suspected of plotting an insurrection, were gunned down by British troops.

10. Michael Faraday

Just to prove that turning down knighthoods isn’t just for modern-day rebels, Faraday (1791-1867), the great chemist and physicist who discovered the electromagnetic field, also turned down a knighthood. Over a century later, another famed scientist, Stephen Hawking, also reportedly said no to the Queen.

Bonus: John Lennon

While turning down returning an MBE, Lennon spelled out his reasons in a letter to the Queen:

"Your Majesty, I am returning this in protest against Britain's involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against Cold Turkey slipping down the charts. With Love, John Lennon of Bag."

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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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May 23, 2017
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