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5 Things You Might Not Know About John DeLorean

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Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS

In a recent episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Jerry Seinfeld and Patton Oswalt took a ride in a DeLorean. (They didn't get very far.) For anyone under 30, the name “DeLorean” conjures images of the time machine from Back to the Future. But let’s look at the man behind those gull-wing doors.

1. He Made Some Terrific Muscle Cars

Although DeLorean is best remembered for the later car that bore his name, in the early 1960s he was one of Detroit’s biggest stars. As chief engineer at Pontiac, he helped transform the division from a maker of practical, conservative cars into one of Detroit’s leading producers of muscle.

DeLorean received credit for a slew of practical innovations like concealed windshield wipers and vertically stacked headlights, but his major coup was dropping a giant 6.4-liter V8 engine into a Pontiac Tempest. The souped-up new model became known as the Pontiac GTO, one of Detroit’s most legendary muscle cars. Pontiac also introduced the Firebird under DeLorean’s watch before he eventually left the division to take the reins at Chevrolet.

2. The DeLorean DMC-12 Wasn’t So Great

Marty McFly’s ride may have been pretty sweet, but the DeLorean DMC-12 wasn’t much of a car unless you sprung for the flux capacitor option. Production of the stainless steel car began in Northern Ireland in 1981, and drivers began complaining almost immediately.

The DMC-12 looked fast, but anyone who got behind the wheel quickly learned that the car was dreadfully slow. For starters, the car’s small engine only produced 130 horsepower, and the stainless steel paneling that gave it such a distinct appearance was heavy. Thanks to its high weight and puny engine, the exotic car could only groan from 0 to 60 in a sluggish 10.5 seconds.

The DeLorean DMC-12 didn’t just earn poor grades for performance, either. The dye from the floor mats would rub off onto drivers’ shoes. The iconic gull-wing doors had a habit of becoming hopelessly stuck. The unpainted stainless steel body looked really cool, but it was nearly impossible to keep clean. In other words, the car wasn’t fun to drive, wasn’t pleasant to ride in, and was almost always dirty. What a combo!

When the market for slow, expensive, breakdown-prone cars never materialized, DeLorean ceased production after just three model years. Only around 8,900 DeLorean DMC-12s ever rolled off the assembly line.

3. He Had Some Big Time Investors, Though

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Although the car DeLorean eventually produced was a notorious flop, he parlayed his muscle-car experience as the man behind the GTO and other automotive legends into investments from some big names. Early investors in the DeLorean Motor Company included Johnny Carson, who chipped in $500,000, and Sammy Davis, Jr., who went in the bag for $150,000. The British government invested $140 million in the company in the hopes that a job-creating production facility in Belfast would tamp down sectarian violence and stimulate the local economy.

All of these investors probably rued their decision to break out their checkbooks for DeLorean, but Carson probably had the biggest regrets. His experience with the DeLorean DMC-12 started on a bad note; the first time he took one for a test drive around the block it broke down. Worse still, Carson was behind the wheel of his 1981 DMC-12 when he was arrested for driving under the influence in 1982. Carson eventually unloaded his DeLorean at auction in 1985 for $18,250.

4. He Had Bigger Problems than His Failing Business

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The rapidly sinking DeLorean Motor Company wasn’t even DeLorean’s biggest headache in the early 80s. His major concern was an October 1982 arrest in which he had been videotaped buying cocaine in Los Angeles. Drug agents alleged DeLorean was conspiring to smuggle $24 million worth of cocaine into the country, and he was even seen on the tape referring to the blow as “better than gold.”

Despite this apparently damning evidence, DeLorean and his lawyers argued that the car mogul had been entrapped by the Justice Department. The defense’s case rested on the assertion that yes, DeLorean had made a bad decision in his efforts to save his foundering company by smuggling drugs, but he only agreed to the scheme after government agents went out of their way to entice him into the crime. After 29 hours of deliberation, the jury agreed and acquitted DeLorean in August 1984.

5. He Cultivated His Image

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DeLorean made sure his cars looked cool, but even more importantly, he made sure John DeLorean looked cool. When DeLorean first rose to prominence in the 60s he became known as a swaggering bad boy with dyed-black hair, big sideburns, and unbuttoned shirts. As the head of Pontiac, DeLorean became a show-business fixture in Hollywood who dated starlets like Ursula Andress.

Some of DeLorean’s image obsession paid off, but it tended to veer into the realm of hilarious narcissism. His 2005 Washington Post obituary noted that one of his ex-girlfriends claimed her Christmas gift from the carmaker was “a leather-bound portfolio featuring photographs of himself.”

DeLorean literally took his rock-star image to his grave. The final sentence of his New York Times obituary read, “In his casket he wore a black motorcycle jacket, blue jeans and a denim shirt. A pair of shades was tucked into the zipper.”

This post originally appeared in 2011.

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technology
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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]

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