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11 Surprising Celebrity Business Ventures

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Actress-model. Writer-director. Singer-reality TV star. Hyphenates are standard business in the celebrity world. But not every boldface name-backed business venture is a natural extension of a star’s best-known talents. Here are 11 of the most surprising ones.


Today, the late Paul Newman’s animated mug is as well known to supermarket shoppers as Aunt Jemima’s. But when the Oscar-winning actor launched his not-for-profit food company in 1982, it was met with a great big “WTF?” Sure, Cool Hand Luke could eat 50 hardboiled eggs in an hour, but concoct a vinaigrette with which to dress them? In the 31 years since its founding, and the five years since his passing, Newman’s “Let’s give it all away!” philosophy has generated more than $370 million in charitable donations—and one hell of a tasty Cobb salad!


Anyone who can manage to make balloon pants look cool certainly has the power to take down Google ... right? In 2011, singer MC Hammer—he of “U Can’t Touch This” and “2 Legit 2 Quit” fame—announced his plans to launch WireDoo, an Internet search engine intended to compete with the likes of Google and Bing. Two years later, there’s still no WireDoo. You do the math (in technology years, of course).


Kim Basinger had big plans for little Braselton, Georgia when she bought the tiny town (population: 500) for $20 million back in 1989 with an eye toward turning it into a tourist attraction. It didn’t happen. Five years later she was filing for bankruptcy and forced to sell the town … for a measly $1 million.


Rock stars launching liquor brands isn’t a brand-new idea (Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo tequila has been thriving for years). But in the case of androgynous rocker Marilyn Manson, it’s the choice of spirit that is rather unusual: absinthe. In 2007, Manson partnered with Switzerland-based Lion Spirits to concoct a signature version of the green-colored, herb-based grain alcohol simply known as Mansinthe.


Before he was a two-time Oscar-nominated actor, Jeremy Renner was a struggling actor who needed to eke out a living away from the camera. So he turned to another passion: real estate. In the past decade, Renner and his business partner/fellow actor Kristoffer Winters have purchased, restored and resold more than a dozen homes with profits that dwarf some of the A-lister’s own paychecks. Like the $24.95 million Beverly Hills mansion that could net the duo a cool $18 million profit!


He may play a doctor on television, but in real life, Grey’s Anatomy star Patrick Dempsey is just a guy. One who spends his time racing expensive cars and taking on Starbucks to gain control of Tully’s, the 48-location Seattle-based coffee chain which declared bankruptcy last year. After six months of negotiations, the actor finally and officially took control of the company on July 1. No word yet on whether a McDreamy Macchiato is in the works.


Considering his tendency to direct two films per year, it’s amazing that filmmaker Steven Soderbergh even knows the meaning of “spare time.” But in May of this year, he launched Extension 765, a self-described “one-of-a-kind marketplace” where one can purchase art, booze, designer T-shirts and props in equal parts, all of which can be traced back to Soderbergh’s love of cinema in some way. (Even the site’s name is a reference to fellow moviemaker/entrepreneur Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation.)


In 2008, animal rights activist Natalie Portman proved that you don’t need to wear leather to look good when she launched a line of vegan footwear with New York City’s Te Casan boutique. Unfortunately, she also confirmed that a shoe doesn’t need to be made of leather to cost $325.


Forty years ago, Francis Ford Coppola’s name was synonymous with epic American cinema with movies like The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II, and Apocalypse Now (though definitely not The Godfather: Part III). While he’s still making movies today, Coppola is usually more likely to be found in a vineyard than on a film set. In 1975, the five-time Oscar winner used his paycheck from The Godfather to buy into the wine biz, where he’s been stomping up premium swill that pays tribute to his work (the Director’s Cut collection features a film strip label) and family (the Sofia collection is light and bubbly) for more than 35 years. His winery, in Geyersville, California, even features a Movie Gallery with props from his sets, including Don Corleone’s desk.


Donald Trump has put his name on a lot of things: buildings, Websites, menswear, cologne, bottled water, vodka, steaks, and board games among them. But even The Donald’s endorsement couldn’t save the short-lived United States Football League, a professional spring football league that counted Herschel Walker, Doug Flutie, Jim Kelly and Steve Young among its stars. Trump’s insistence that the season be moved from spring to fall to compete with the NFL is often cited as the reason for the USFL’s untimely demise.


Andrew Shue became a television star as resident good guy Billy Campbell on Melrose Place, but he has also had a career as a professional soccer player (as part of the Zimbabwe Premier Soccer League, no less) and in 1993 he co-founded Do Something, a nonprofit organization dedicated to encouraging youngsters to make a difference. In 2006 he ventured into totally foreign territory when he (and another dude) started CafeMom, a social networking site for, yep, moms. It caught on quickly, becoming one of the Web’s most popular sites for women in no time, and in 2011 it was deemed a Top 50 Website by Time. See what happens when you stop letting Amanda Woodward push you around!

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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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Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]