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The Surprising Passions of 11 Brilliant People

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You already knew everyone on this list was brilliant and accomplished in his or her chosen field. What you might not have known is that they were also truly devoted to their less publicized passions.

1) Teddy Roosevelt was a man with a lot of hobbies, including obvious ones like hunting, trust busting, and carrying metaphorical sticks. But he was also a passionate boxer and had a brown belt in judo. He once turned heads at a state luncheon by playfully chucking a Swiss diplomat with a judo toss.

2) Napoleon had no rival when it came to battlefield brilliance, so it’s a little surprising that he wasn’t great at his favorite hobby: chess. Although the general supposedly carried a board with him on his military campaigns, he never had much time to practice and was generally regarded as a middling player.

3) Emily Dickinson made more than just amazing poetry – she was also a celebrated baker! Despite being famously shy, Dickinson was sure enough of her bread to enter it in a local competition, in which she won second prize. Of course, since she was Emily Dickinson, poetry was always at play, even in the kitchen – many of her drafts are written on the backs of recipes or ingredient wrappers.

4) Amelia Earhart was passionate about a hobby that’s not usually associated with daredevils: stamp collecting. Earhart frequently carried pieces of mail on her landmark flights. As these pieces became highly collectible, Earhart got in on the fun, acquiring examples of mail she’d flown and showing them at stamp-collecting conventions.

5) Mozart fell ill with smallpox when he was 11 years old, an illness that required several weeks of rest for recovery. The young composer used the down time of his convalescence to pick up a new hobby: card tricks. A local chaplain visited the sick boy and taught him a slew of card tricks that the composer later used to delight his friends.

6) Thomas Edison had a surprisingly impractical passion: concrete. The great inventor so adored concrete that he created a system of molds that would enable builders to simply pour a whole, complete house from concrete. He even had patents for concrete furniture to fill his concrete houses! As you might have noticed, the idea never took off.

7) Thomas Jefferson is so celebrated as a statesman, writer, architect, librarian, and oenophile that it’s easy to miss the fact that he was a celebrated violinist. Jefferson took lessons for most of his life, starting as a young boy, and although accounts of his skill level differ, Jefferson was able to use his musical abilities to woo his wife.

8) Marie Curie stayed pretty busy in the lab – being one of history’s greatest chemists and physicists takes some time – but she also spent a lot of time on her bike. Throughout her life, Curie’s favorite way to unwind was hopping on her bike for long trips that let her explore the outdoors.

9) Abraham Lincoln would have been a surprisingly huge fan of Internet memes. Mary Todd Lincoln was once asked if her husband had any hobbies. Her simple reply: “Cats.”

10) Edith Wharton is remembered for award-winning novels like The Age of Innocence, but her first published book was actually a guide to interior decorating. Throughout her life, the author was a passionate and accomplished interior decorator and garden designer. Wharton even designed her own country home and gardens, “The Mount,” in Lenox, Mass.

11) John Quincy Adams was among our quirkier presidents – he enjoyed skinny dipping in the Potomac and kept a pet alligator in the White House. But he was also an avid collector of ancient coins.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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