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11 Administrative Professionals Who Became Famous

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Secretaries, receptionists, and other administrative professionals perform tasks that are vital to many companies. But because their work is often supportive and behind-the-scenes, it may go unnoticed or under-appreciated. In honor of Administrative Professionals Day on April 26, take a look at some famous secretaries and administrative assistants.

1. JOAN RIVERS

After graduating from Barnard College in 1954, Joan Rivers worked as a tour guide at Rockefeller Center, a fashion publicist, and a secretary for Irvin Arthur, who was a successful talent agent and nightclub booker. During the day, she answered Arthur’s office phone—sometimes performing her monologue to callers before handing the phone over to her boss. At night, she did stand-up at clubs in New York City. Arthur discouraged Rivers from pursuing comedy, and he reportedly told her that she was already too old to make it. Rivers certainly proved him wrong, becoming one of the most successful female comedy stars.

2. JEREMY BERNARD

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In 2011, Jeremy Bernard became the White House’s first male (and first openly gay) Social Secretary. The role involved planning all of the White House’s official social events, including state dinners, Medal of Honor ceremonies, and teas hosted by former FLOTUS Michelle Obama. Bernard also helped Obama compile guest lists, choose decorations, and select invitations for events. During his four years as Social Secretary, Bernard was profiled by Vogue and became a well-known figure in Washington, D.C.

3. HELEN GURLEY BROWN

By John Bottega, World Telegram staff photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Helen Gurley Brown—born in Arkansas in 1922—took a few college classes at a Texas college before going to secretarial school. In the 1940s, she worked 17 different secretarial jobs around Los Angeles, including at a radio station and an ad agency. She later recalled how her male bosses would regularly fondle the secretaries, trying to see their underwear.

After working as a secretary, Brown became an advertising copywriter and wrote Sex and the Single Girl, an advice book aimed at unmarried women. The book, published in 1962, became a bestseller and was turned into a film. From 1965 to 1997, Brown was Cosmopolitan’s editor in chief, turning the magazine from a more traditional, literary publication to one that candidly covered sex and women’s issues.

4. CARLY FIORINA

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Before she ran for president (and later vice president) in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, Cara "Carly" Fiorina worked as a secretary. To earn money to attend Stanford University, the Texas native worked as a receptionist at a hair salon and, during summers, took secretary jobs through a temp agency. She went on to enroll at the UCLA School of Law and dropped out after one semester.

Then, Fiorina worked as a secretary again, typing and filing for a nine-person real estate firm. Her bosses increased her responsibilities and eventually she found her way back to school, getting an MBA and going to work for AT&T and Lucent. She became the CEO of Hewlett-Packard in 1999, making her the first woman to lead a Fortune 20 company.

5. URSULA BURNS

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Ursula Burns was born in a New York City housing project in 1958 and grew up poor with a single mother and two siblings. After studying mechanical engineering at Brooklyn Polytechnic (now New York University Tandon School of Engineering), she worked toward a master’s degree in engineering at Columbia University. She also interned in upstate New York with Xerox’s engineering program for minorities, which paid for some of her education. Burns worked her way up through the Xerox corporate ladder throughout the 1980s and '90s, serving as an executive assistant to Xerox’s vice president of marketing and customer operations and, later, as a secretary to the company’s chairman and CEO.

In 2009, Burns became the chairwoman and CEO of Xerox—and the first female, African-American CEO of a Fortune 500 company. She expanded the company from copying and printing to a tech company. Today, Burns is active in helping students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, succeed in STEM fields.

6. BETTE NESMITH GRAHAM

After secretarial school, Bette Nesmith Graham moved to Dallas, Texas and became an executive secretary for a Texas bank. The single mother went on to work on an IBM electric typewriter in the early 1950s. Unfortunately, the device's design made it difficult to neatly erase typos. Worried that she’d lose her job every time she made a typing error, Graham thought of a solution after she saw artists painting holiday decorations on the bank windows and remembered from her own art background that artists would often just paint over their mistakes.

Graham tried brushing a white, water-based paint onto the paper to cover her typos. Her idea worked. Calling her correcting fluid “Mistake Out,” Graham sold her invention to other secretaries and, in 1958, renamed it "Liquid Paper." She sold her company to Gillette Corporation for almost 50 million dollars in 1979.

7. EVELYN LINCOLN

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Evelyn Lincoln, born in Polk County, Nebraska in 1909, was the daughter of a prominent Nebraskan politician. She studied law at George Washington University and went on to work as a Congressional aide until 1953, when she began working for a new Massachusetts senator, John F. Kennedy. When her boss became president, Lincoln worked in an office next to his in the White House. Lincoln was intimately involved in the president’s daily life, and she served as his secretary until his death. (She was riding in his motorcade when he was assassinated in 1963.) After Kennedy's death, Lincoln worked as a secretary for other politicians, wrote two memoirs, and donated the JFK papers she saved to the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.

8. J.K. ROWLING

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Although it’s widely known that J.K. Rowling struggled financially before finishing the first Harry Potter title, you might not know that she worked as a secretary at Amnesty International’s London headquarters. To pay her rent, she took notes and translated for the human rights organization’s research department. "There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them," she told Harvard Magazine. "I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings and rapes.”

Rowling was reportedly fired from her secretarial job because she was distracted by her desire to write about a boy wizard…and the rest is magical history.

9. ROSE MARY WOODS

The National Archives and Records Administration

Rose Mary Woods began working as a secretary for Senator Richard Nixon in 1951. Woods, who had already been working as a secretary in Washington, D.C., became Nixon’s confidante, working for him for decades. In 1974, Woods gave grand jury testimony in which she tried to explain her role in the notorious 18.5 minutes of missing audio from a Watergate tape.

The Ohio native apologized for pressing the wrong button and recording over about five minutes of the tape and she became infamous for demonstrating how she allegedly made the mistake. Dubbed the Rose Mary stretch, she stretched back for the telephone while her foot simultaneously hit the transcription machine’s pedal. Nixon told Woods first when he decided to resign, and he asked her to tell his wife and daughters for him. He later wrote that he considered Woods as a member of his family. After Nixon resigned from the presidency, Woods continued to work as his secretary before working for other politicians.

10. BARBARA WALTERS

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Barbara Walters has interviewed everyone from Mother Teresa and Maya Angelou to Fidel Castro and Vladimir Putin. Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1931, the famous broadcast journalist graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with a degree in English. Before starting her career at The Today Show, Walters worked as a secretary for the publicity director of WRCA-TV, an NBC affiliate in New York.

11. NAOMI JUDD

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In the 1980s and early '90s, The Judds, Naomi and her daughter Wynonna, were one of the most successful country musical groups. The duo sold millions of albums, won Grammy Awards, and toured the world. But before she was a country superstar, Naomi supported herself and her two daughters with gigs as a waitress in Los Angeles. She applied for a job as a receptionist for the 5th Dimension, the pop group famous for songs "Up, Up and Away" and "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In."

Naomi didn’t get the receptionist job, but she worked in the same office as a secretary for a talent agent for a few months. Naomi later revealed the reason she took the secretary job: She couldn’t afford a car, and the office was just a couple of blocks from where she lived.

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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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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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