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The Early Lives and Times of 7 Oil Barons

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Want to become fabulously wealthy overnight and open the door to starting your own eccentric dynasty? We suggest striking oil.

1. John D. Rockefeller

Rockefeller was so rich, he spent the last 40 years of his life in retirement. But the beginning of his life wasn’t as glamorous. His dad was a vagabond snake oil salesman, a self described “botanic physician,” who once said, “I cheat my boys every chance I get. I want to make ‘em sharp.” And his boy was. Before he struck oil, young John made money by raising turkeys and selling potatoes. By 1870, his company was refining 90 percent the country’s oil.

2. H.L. Hunt

Although Hunt worked on a cotton plantation, he was known as a math whiz. One day in the early 20th century, with only $100 to his name, he booked it to New Orleans and bet it all on a poker game. Thanks to his mathematical chops and some good luck, Hunt turned that $100 into $100,000. He used his winnings to buy the East Texas Oil Field, which went on to earn him millions.

3. J. Paul Getty

Getty was lucky enough to grow up in an oil family. He made his first million two years after graduating college in 1914. After that, he decided to retire and become a Los Angeles playboy. He eventually got tired of the high life and returned to the oil biz, making millions more. But that didn’t stop him from being a penny-pincher: Getty made guests at his home use a payphone.

4. Edwin L. Drake

In 1858, the Seneca Oil Company sent Edwin Drake to Titusville, PA. It wasn’t because he was a revered oil baron. Instead he drew the assignment because, as a retired train conductor, Drake could travel on the railroad for free. And so Drake looked for oil the way everybody else did—by digging trenches. But then he had a wild idea. He tried drilling for oil instead. It was a first. People called him crazy, and Seneca Oil backed out. But then he struck black gold, initially collecting it all in a bathtub.

5. Anthony Francis Lucas

Born into a Croatian family of shipbuilders in 1855, Lucas became a mechanical engineer, moved to the US, and switched careers to become a gold prospector. Later on, he worked as a salt explorer for a New Orleans company. Later working in Texas, as he became more acquainted with the landscape, he guessed there was oil underfoot. Geologists called him nuts. Everyone stopped laughing when he hit a gusher that spewed oil for nine days.

6. Columbus Marion Joiner

Who needs education? Joiner went to school for a total of seven weeks! He taught himself how to read using the Bible and learned to write by copying Genesis. In the 1920s, he started drilling for oil in Texas with dilapidated, rusty equipment. After three years of pulling up nothing but dirt, Joiner hit a gusher. At that time, it was the largest oil field in the world.

7. George Bissell

When Bissell entered the business in Pennsylvania in the 1850s, most people collected oil by soaking blankets in surface deposits and then squeezing it into barrels. Bissell was a bit smarter than that. Actually, he spoke eight languages—including Sanskrit. But when he suggested people could pump oil out of the ground, one critic said, “Oil coming out of the ground, pumping oil out of the earth as you pump water? Nonsense! You’re crazy.”

As amazing as these oilmen are, none of them can touch the story of tycoon Jonas Morehouse and his sprawling family. Catch their story on The Spoils of Babylon on IFC at 10/9c on January 9.

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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