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How 5 Lottery Winners Paid It Forward

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A 2010 Princeton University study found that a boost in income increases a person's happiness, but only up to a certain point — a $75,000 annual salary. So money can buy happiness ... if you don't have too much of it. No wonder these lottery winners found their fortune when they gave their money away.

1. Bob Erb

Lottery winners can afford to leave a good tip, but they're usually not this generous. In late June, Bob Erb of Terrace, British Columbia paid for a burger and fries with a $10,000 check and told the restaurant owner, Cliff Luther, to keep the change. The two men met a week earlier when Erb and his girlfriend stopped by for lunch while on a road trip. Luther told the out-of-towners that his daughter also lived in British Columbia, and that she'd recently been diagnosed with cancer. Erb empathized—he lost his own son to the disease a few years ago. On his way home, Erb returned to the restaurant for lunch and a good deed. He told the Vancouver Sun about Luther's reaction to the check: "[Luther was] so overwhelmed, so befuddled by it that I ended up having to flip my own burger, because he was real emotional.”

Erb's first charitable act after winning $25 million last November was more controversial. He donated $1 million to 420 Day, an annual event that advocates marijuana legalization. Erb has also donated money to a school and rewarded $10,000 to $20,000 to each employee at the gas station where he bought his winning ticket. Why live like a high roller when you can give back?

2. John Kutey

Some lottery winners share the wealth by donating to existing charities or starting their own. John Kutey, one of seven IT specialists who shared a $319 million win in 2011, decided to build a $250,000 water park. Spray Park opened in Green Island, New York on July 1, replacing an outdated park from the 1940s. Kutey and his wife Linda dedicated the new summertime attraction to their parents. If Kutey's fellow winners, all co-workers at New York State's Division of Housing and Community Renewal, follow his lead, they could revitalize an entire city.

3. Allen and Violet Large

Research has found that the higher the jackpot, the more likely winners will go bankrupt. But Allen and Violet Large of Lower Truro, Nova Scotia, didn't worry about that. When the elderly couple won $11.2 million in 2010, they donated 98 percent of their newfound wealth to the Red Cross, churches, fire departments, and hospitals where Violet was treated for cancer. At the time, Violet told the Toronto Star, "What you've never had, you never miss."

Alas, not everyone has such good intentions. Email scams have been one side effect of the Larges well, largesse. In one widely-circulated email, a person pretending to be one of the Larges promises a donation in exchange for a bank account number. Allen Large worries that the scam tarnishes his late wife's name—Violet died in 2011. He still buys weekly lottery tickets in her memory, though. If he wins again, he plans to donate it all.

4. Anonymous

The easiest way for lottery winners to avoid "mo' money, mo' problems" might be mo' mystery. In 2008, True North Community Church in Port Jefferson, New York received a $3 million winning scratch-off ticket from one of its parishioners, who wants to remain anonymous. Ask and ye shall receive! Since its windfall, the church has been able to expand and donate to various other charities. Pastor Bertrand Crabbe remains mum on the generous donor and gives the real credit to God.

5. Dennis Mahurin

A seminal 1978 study found that Illinois State Lottery winners were not much happier than people paralyzed in accidents. Financial highs and circumstantial lows fade within a few months, returning people to a happiness baseline. Coincidentally, Dennis Mahurin has lived in a Bloomington, Illinois homeless community since the year of the study. When he won $50,000 on a scratch-off ticket in April, he announced that he was staying in his tent. Mahurin plans to go to the dentist, visit his son, save a bit of money, and give $100 to every homeless person he knows.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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]