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11 Famous Misquotations and What Was Really Said

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1. "Billions and billions." Carl Sagan never said this, and he even explained that he never said it in the first chapter of his book, which, incidentally, was titled Billions & Billions:

"Oh, I said there are maybe 100 billion galaxies and 10 billion trillion stars. It's hard to talk about the Cosmos without using big numbers...But I never said 'billions and billions.' For one thing, it's too imprecise."

The quote actually originated from Johnny Carson's impression of Sagan.

2. "The British are coming!" was very likely never shouted by Paul Revere. It was in the poem about his journey (Paul Revere's Ride), though. The thought is that most of the people in the colonies still considered themselves British, plus the whole mission was cloaked in secrecy - running through the village shouting may have thrown off the plans a bit.

3. "Let them eat cake!" has been attributed to the tragic Marie Antoinette for centuries, but she didn't say it. A similar quote was said by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his autobiography Confessions: "I recalled the make-shift of a great princess who was told that the peasants had no bread and who replied: "Let them eat brioche." But he wasn't talking about Marie Antoinette. He was talking about an incident that happened 10 years before she was even born. The twisted quote was attributed to her probably to turn the country against her even more. Apparently, it worked.

4. "Houston, we have a problem." Not quite, not quite. When things went awry on Apollo 13, Fred Haise started with, "OK, Houston," and was then interrupted by Jim Lovell with, "I believe we've had a problem here," followed by "Houston, we've had a problem. We've had a main B bus undervolt."

5. "Can't we all just get along?" The context of Rodney King's famous quote is right, but what he actually said was, "People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?"

6. "I cannot tell a lie. It was I who chopped down the cherry tree." George Washington may have been honest, but he never said this statement. One of his many biographers, Parson Weems, made up the quote in the 1800s.

7. "Pride comes before a fall." Well, if you're quoting the Beatles, that's right. But if you're quoting the Bible, the saying is, "Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall."

8. According to WinstonChurchill.org, the quote "The only traditions of the Royal Navy are rum, sodomy and the lash," was never actually said by him. His assistant, Anthony Montague-Browne, said that Churchill wished it was his quote.

9. Mark Twain. Check out Snopes — it's full of misattributed Mark Twain quotes. They talked to the author of Nice Guys Finish Seventh, a book about Samuel Clemens. He said that any time a quote is anonymous, droll, and sarcastic, people pretty much automatically assume that Mark Twain said it. Here are just a couple that he never said (or they were misquoted):

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics." He did quote this in his autobiography, but attributed it to Benjamin Disraeli.

"To cease smoking is the easiest thing I ever did. I ought to know because I've done it a thousand times."

"So I became a newspaperman. I hated to do it, but I couldn't find honest employment."

"Whenever I feel the urge to exercise, I lie down until it goes away."

10. "Ain't I a woman?" is supposedly a phrase Sojourner Truth delivered to much fanfare at the 1851 Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio. Although it's widely known as Truth's "Ain't I a Woman?" speech, she probably never said the phrase once, let alone the four times it's been said her speech contained it. So how did we get a transcript of an incorrect speech? We likely have feminist Frances Dana Barker Gage to thank. She was there the day the speech was given and published the version she remembered — 12 years after the fact. The version published the day after her speech was much different than the way Gage remembered it. If you check out both speeches, you'll notice that even the dialect is completely different.

11. Harry Truman may have popularized the saying "The Buck Stops Here," but he definitely didn't invent it. The sign that so famously resided on Truman's desk was actually a gift from Fred Canfil, a friend who saw the sign on the desk of a prison warden in Oklahoma. Canfil requested a sign for the President and it was mailed to him on October 2, 1945. Fun fact: the reverse side of the sign said "I'm from Missouri."

See also: 10 Famous Movie Misquotations.

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technology
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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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