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6 Other Famous People Who Did Not Exist

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Deadspin has a bizarre report out tonight about Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o's girlfriend, who reportedly died tragically last year at the age of 22. It was one of the most heartbreaking stories of the college football season. But it turns out the whole thing was a hoax. In the coming days we'll surely learn more about who exactly was involved. For now, here's a list of some other fictional people who made a name for themselves.

1. The Dream Student

George P. Burdell was a man born of a simple mistake. In 1927, someone in the admissions office at Georgia Tech accidentally sent student Ed Smith two registration forms instead of one. Sensing an opportunity for mischief, Smith filled out one form for himself and the other for George P. Burdell—a student he completely made up. When Smith arrived at school, he kept the ruse going by enrolling Burdell in all of his classes and even turning in assignments under his name. In fact, Smith did so much work on behalf of his imaginary friend that Burdell eventually graduated.

When other students found out about the hoax, they helped keep Burdell’s story going. According to his resume, Burdell flew 12 missions over Europe during World War II and served on MAD magazine’s Board of Directors from 1969 to 1981. In 2001, when Burdell was supposedly 90 years old, he nearly became Time magazine’s Person of the Year after garnering 57 percent of online votes. Today, Burdell is one of Georgia Tech’s most celebrated alums. He even has a page on Facebook, where he keeps in touch with almost 5,000 “friends.”

2. The Fantasy Hockey Player

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Like many hockey players drafted in the 11th round of the 1974 NHL Draft, Taro Tsujimoto never actually made it to the big time. But unlike the other players drafted with him, Tsujimoto didn’t exist.

His name is in the record books because of Punch Imlach, the former general manager of the Buffalo Sabres. Imlach was so fed up with tedious late rounds of the draft that he decided to poke some fun at the league. He pulled a Japanese name from the local phone book and made up an imaginary team. Then, he simply told NHL President Clarence Campbell that his draft pick was Taro Tsujimoto of the Tokyo Katanas. Sure, no one had ever heard of Tsujimoto, but that didn’t stop the NHL from making the selection official. Several weeks later, Imlach revealed his prank, but Sabres fans didn’t care. For years after the draft, Buffalo crowds would break into chants, demanding “We want Taro!”

3. The Elusive Artist

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Sometimes life imitates art, and sometimes life mocks it. In 1998, Scottish novelist William Boyd wrote a book called Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960. The book was pure fiction, but Boyd released it as a biography because he wanted to see how long it would take the art world to figure out that Tate never existed. To help sell the story, Boyd enlisted some powerful friends, including author Gore Vidal (who is liberally quoted throughout the book) and rock star David Bowie. When the book debuted, Bowie threw a huge party in Tate’s honor, inviting the most elite members of New York’s art scene. Journalist David Lister, who knew that Tate was fake, made the rounds at Bowie’s party and asked people what they thought of the artist. When they inevitably spoke of their familiarity with his work, Lister would hear them out, then let them in on the joke.

4 & 5. The Mysterious Aborigines

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In the early 1990s, two Australian artists had the same bad idea completely independently: to sell their work by pretending to be Aborigines.

One of the two artists was Leon Carmen, a cab driver living in Sydney. He invented a new identity for himself as Wanda Koolmatrie, an Aboriginal woman abducted from the bush in the 1950s and forced to live in white society. Carmen wrote an autobiography as Koolmatrie, and the book went on to win praise for its “distinctive new voice.” But when Carmen tried to write a sequel in 1997, the publisher caught on, and the incident became a national scandal.

The other artist, painter Elizabeth Durack, had more luck with her fake identity. In 1994, she began signing her work Eddie Burrup, supposedly a male, Aboriginal ex-convict. The paintings were selected for indigenous art exhibitions and won numerous prizes. But when the paintings began to draw serious interest from art collectors, Durack revealed herself as Burrup, claiming that she understood Aborigines well enough to paint as one of them. Aborigines disagreed, and they demanded that galleries stop selling her work. Strangely, the artist continued to paint as Burrup until her death in 2000.

6. The Fictional Critic

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Very few film critics had anything nice to say about Rob Schneider’s 2001 comedy The Animal. One exception: movie reviewer David Manning of the so-called Ridgefield Press, who called the movie “Another winner!” In reality, Sony marketing executives created the fictional critic to promote the company’s worst films. In fact, The Animal was just one of many box office bombs that Manning enthusiastically praised. He also lent his critical support to Hollow Man, Vertical Limit, and The Patriot.

After reading about the deception in Newsweek, two California movie lovers, Omar Rezec and Ann Belknap, decided to sue Sony. They filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all filmgoers who saw movies based on Manning’s “reviews.” In the end, Sony settled out of court.

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technology
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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