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The Youthful Pranks of 5 Famous People

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Julie Winterbottom is the former editor in chief of Nickelodeon magazine, where she fulfilled her childhood dream of getting paid to write jokes; her book, Pranklopedia: The Funniest, Grossest, Not-Mean Pranks on the Planet! is on sale now. Julie lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she pulls pranks on her boyfriend and cat.

Does pulling pranks in childhood lead to success later in life? Judging from the youthful shenanigans of these five famous people, the answer might be yes.

1. Abraham Lincoln

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When Abraham Lincoln was a young man living at home, he was quite the prankster. His stepmother Sarah Bush Lincoln used to tease him about his height, telling him that he’d better keep his head clean or she’d have to scrub the ceiling. The story goes that one day when Sarah was out, Abe noticed two boys playing barefoot outside next to a mud puddle. He asked them to stomp in the mud until their feet were covered. Then he brought them back to the house. One by one, he carried them inside and held them upside down so their muddy feet could touch the ceiling. Then he had them “walk” across the ceiling, creating a trail of brown footprints. Sarah reportedly took the prank with good humor—but she did make Lincoln repaint the ceiling.

2. Franklin D. Roosevelt

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Franklin D. Roosevelt is another president who got an early start pulling pranks. Young Franklin was looked after by a doting mother and a series of nurses, governesses, and tutors. When he was ten, a German-speaking nurse accompanied the family on their annual tour of Europe and became the inevitable victim of a prank. Franklin snuck into her room during the day and poured a few spoonfuls of effervescent powder in the chamber pot under her bed. That night, when the nurse relieved herself, the contents of the pot began to hiss and roil. Thinking she was ill, the nurse ran to Mrs. Roosevelt’s room for help. FDR later said that the two women never figured out it was a prank—but his father did. The senior Roosevelt summoned his son to the smoking room to be reprimanded, but he couldn’t keep a straight face. Breaking into laughter, he told his son, “Consider yourself spanked.”

3. Willie Morris

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Mississippi native Willie Morris was the editor of Harper’s Magazine during the 1960s and later wrote a series of bestselling memoirs. He had deep affection for pets and practical jokes, and he managed to combine the two in an ingenious prank he pulled when he was 13.

In the 1940s, it was common for kids in Morris’s hometown of Yazoo City to start driving the family car at 13. When Morris took his parents’ DeSoto for a spin, he would always bring his English fox terrier Skip along for the ride. One day, when they got to the edge of town, Morris got Skip to prop himself against the steering wheel so he was peering through the windshield. Then Morris slowed down to 10 or 15 mph and crouched out of sight under the dashboard. He guided the steering wheel with his right hand while Skip kept it steady with his paws. As they passed a café, a man shouted, “A dog! A dog drivin’!” and promptly fell off his chair. One Sunday, Morris got an even better reaction. As he approached a rural church, he noticed that a revival meeting was letting out. He pulled over, put Skip behind the wheel, and continued up the road. As they neared the church, a woman exclaimed, “Is that a dog drivin’ that car?” Suddenly the lively crowd of parishioners went dead silent. It was a hush Morris never forgot. “It was as if the very spectacle of Old Skip driving that green DeSoto were inscrutable, celestial, and preordained,” he later wrote.

4. Steve Jobs

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Growing up in suburban California in the 1950s, Apple cofounder Steve Jobs was often plagued by boredom. Two things helped them survive: building electronics and pulling pranks. Jobs got started in the pranks department early. In elementary school, he and his friend Rick Ferrentino made posters announcing “Bring Your Pet to School Day” and passed them out to the other kids. The next day, teachers were up in arms as their classrooms became overrun with dogs chasing cats.

5. Steve Wozniak

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Apple's other cofounder, Steve Wozniak, gravitated towards high-tech pranks. During his first year in college, he built a pocket-sized circuit that could jam TV signals. He would take it to a dorm room where a group of people were watching TV and secretly activate the device. The TV screen would go fuzzy, and Wozniak would wait for someone to get up and hold the rabbit-ear antenna at a certain angle in an effort to improve reception. Once the person was in sufficiently awkward position, perhaps with his or her hand in front of the screen, Wozniak would deactivate the device and the picture would clear up. As soon as the person sat back down, Wozniak would jam the signal again. He would continue until everyone in the room insisted that the person stand holding the antenna for the remainder of the show.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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