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The Faces Behind 9 Recognizable Names

These are names you’ve been wearing, eating, drinking, and avoiding your whole life. Here are the faces and stories attached to them.   

1. Levi Strauss

Every good business man knows: In an 1870s San Francisco gold rush, you don’t make your fortune squatting in a creek panning for pebbles. You make your fortune making and selling the copper riveted “waist overalls” that cover the butts of those squatting in a creek panning for pebbles. Levi first made his revolutionary workpants from heavy canvas. He later switched to denim, dyed blue to hide the dirt (which any college student will tell you still works!). He insisted everyone, even his employees, call him “Levi,” which is why you don’t worry about how much room your “Strauss’s” have in the crotch.   

2. Jumbo

There once was an elephant. He was so big, they called him “Jumbo.” HA! Wrong! That’s all backwards, friends. There was an African elephant named Jumbo, born in 1861, but his name likely came from the Swahili words for chief (jumbe) and hello (jambe). The whole world knew and loved him, as he was passed from zoos to circuses throughout the Western world. He died under P.T. Barnum’s ownership, when he was struck by a train in a rail-yard. He is remembered through many memorials and hopefully now, every time you order the Jumbo Shrimp Skewer at Sizzler. 

3. Lane Bryant

Before Lena Bryant got her name misspelled on a bank application form in 1904, fat and pregnant ladies never indulged in the emerging trend of store-bought clothes. Pregnant ladies were supposed to stay home to conceal their shame, and fat ladies to stay in their gypsy caravans from which the circus would charge two bits a gander. Lena changed all that. First an orphan and then quickly a widow, dress making was how she supported herself and her son. When a customer asked her for a discrete dress to accommodate her pregnancy, Lena designed the first ever commercial maternity dress. She then turned her attentions to another consumer population no one wanted to tap, the “stout.” She designed clothes for “all-over stout,” “flat-busted stout,” and “full-busted stout.” A pioneer of body acceptance, and the reason I personally don’t have to wear muumuus except for special occasions, her motto was, “Of course we can fit you!” 

4. Hans Asperger

As a child in the early 1910s, Austrian Hans Asperger liked poetry. He liked to quote it to his schoolmates, who thought he was weird. He furthered that perception by his tendency to quote himself, and refer to himself in the third person. Just as the schoolyard pretty much ignored him, so did the pediatric medical community he eventually became a member of. He pegged Asperger’s symptoms early on in his career, in 1944, when he observed children of normal intelligence who “lacked nonverbal communication skills, failed to demonstrate empathy with their peers, and were physically awkward.” Unfortunately, autism wasn’t really on anyone’s radar until the 1980s, after he had died. At that time, his work was translated into English, and the condition he’d observed was given his name. 

5. Uziel Gal

Gal was born in Germany before the Second World War, but he was a Jew, so he got out of there pretty quick. He lived in the British Mandate of Palestine, where, in 1943 he was arrested for carrying a gun. Gal was sent to prison and served 3 years of his sentence. Then, when he got out, he joined the Israeli army and designed the Uzi, the first in a family of Israeli open-bolt, blowback-operated submachine guns. The Uzi has been exported to over 90 countries, used in at least 12 wars, and was the best-selling sub-machine gun until the 1980s. 

6. Typhoid Mary

Mary Mallon just wanted to earn a decent living as a household cook for the well to do families of New York. It wasn’t her fault that the people she cooked for kept getting typhoid and sometimes dying. She had to change jobs just about every year, as some of them had the nerve to blame her, when she obviously was not sick with typhoid. Eventually she was caught, tracked down by the long trail of distended stomachs, fevers, and life threatening diarrhea she left behind her. She was shown to be an asymptomatic carrier and forced into isolation. She was released after three years, the State of New York making her promise to stop handling food. She agreed and became a laundress. For about an hour. She then spent the next five years continuing to infect New York, causing severe illness and death. When investigators finally caught her again, she was sentenced to quarantine on an institutional island for the remainder of her life, from 1915 to 1938. 

7. Arthur Guinness

The Guinness Brewery has been around for a long time, since Arthur Guinness bought the lease for a disused brewery in Dublin in 1759. And it’s probably going to be around for a long time to come, because the lease he signed was for 9000 years. He wanted that particular brewery because it included water rights of a nearby canal, which allowed him to easily ship his barrels of porter. When the Dublin sheriff came in 1775 with the instructions to cut off the water supply and fill in the canal, Guinness defended it with a pick axe. History is silent on whether or not this Irishman was sober when he attacked cops with a pick axe, but it does record that he won

8. McDonald’s Brothers

Even if you think of Mac and Dick McDonald as the fathers of the American obesity epidemic, you have to admire their style. Their early restaurants in the 1940s were unlike anything seen before. Everything was streamlined; the spatulas specially designed for mass flipping, the ketchup dispensers built to squeeze a uniform amount of ketchup on each burger. Their menu was limited and they had no waiters, making things move even quicker. They were a huge success. So much so that their business partner, Ray Kroc, bought them out in 1961 for the exorbitant sum of $ 2.7 million dollars. Kroc agreed to give them 1 percent royalties every year, but the brothers never got it in writing. Do not do handshake deals with the kind of man whose shark-like business acumen will eventually build a 24-billion-dollar-a-year empire out of hamburgers. If it had been in writing, the McDonalds and their heirs would be receiving around $200 million a year today. 

9. Jean Nicot

Speaking of people we blame for making us fat and sickly, in 1559, French Ambassador Jean Nicot was in Spain, arranging the marriage of a 6-year-old princess to a 5-year-old king. While there, he discovered the delightful effect of the tobacco plant. When the leaves are dried, pulverized into dust, and sniffed up the nose … well, it just felt great. Catherine de' Medici, the French queen mother, thought so, too. Pretty soon all the cool courtiers were snuffing. Nicot was a celebrity, so much so that when chemists got around to isolating the mind-altering chemical in tobacco, they named it nicotine, after him. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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