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7 People Who Died and Left Their Fortunes To Strangers

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It's not unusual for wealthy people to leave part or all of their wealth to family and friends. It's extremely rare, however, that people leave estates and fortunes to complete strangers. Here are seven of those exceptional people.

1. An unnamed wealthy Brooklynite

A New York man who died in 1919 was well-known for his "wealth and eccentricity," and his will did not disappoint. He left these instructions to the executor of his estate: "I own seventy one pairs of trousers. It is my desire that they be sold by auction after my death and that the proceeds of the sale shall be distributed to the deserving poor of my parish. They must, however, be disposed of severally to different bidders, no single individual being permitted to purchase more than one pair." The orders were carried out as he wished. It was later discovered that hidden in each pair of pants was a fabric pouch containing ten 100-dollar bills. He left his family nothing.

2. John White

When John White of Somerset, England, died at the age of 96, he left £40,000 to his nephew Richard, which Richard stashed in a trust fund for his own children. (White had no children of his own and had never married.) But the interesting part involves the remaining £2,000,000 of White's fortune. The funds were bequeathed to a number of churches, school and organizations in the area—none of which had ever heard of Mr. White, and had no idea why the money was left to them. White's family took it in stride, though: "He liked to surprise people," his nephew said.

3. Charles Vance Millar

Canadian lawyer Charles Vance Millar was known among friends as something of a prankster, so no one was particularly surprised to find that his will held a number of unusual bequests. The unmarried, childless Millar had three friends who hated each other, so he left them a vacation home in Jamaica ... but all three men had to live there together. He left a number of anti-horse-racing activists each $25,000 worth of Ontario Jockey Club stock. But the real clincher was his will's tenth clause: The remainder of Millar's estate was to be liquidated ten years after the date of his death, and the full value left to the Toronto woman who had borne the most children in that time. The Great Stork Derby was famously contested by the Supreme Court of Canada, but it survived a decade of litigation and in 1936, the $750,000 value of Millar's remaining assets were divided among 6 women. Four had delivered 9 children each, and two others received a smaller portion out of court. In all, Millar's estate supported 54 children.

4. Dr. Meszaros

In 1930, a newspaper report from Vienna tells the story of a young Austrian actress who was awarded the entirety of a stranger's estate. Apparently, a man referred to only as Dr. Meszaros left $50,000 to a woman named Corin Ward. It seems the good doctor was in love with the woman but never had the courage to speak to her, and being unmarried and childless, left his fortune to her instead.

5. Henri de la Salle

Again in 1930, a young actress found herself suddenly wealthy courtesy of a stranger. Lillian Malrup was informed by letter that a friend of her deceased uncle—whom she had never met—had died in Paris and left her $700,000. The only conditions of the bequest were that she set aside $100,000 in a trust fund, and then use the interest to help needy college students. Ms. Malrup was surprised, of course—she said, "I scarcely knew of M. La Salle. My uncle had mentioned him in letters to me."

6. Luis Carlos de Noronha Cabral da Camara

When Luis Carlos died at 42, he was unmarried, childless, and had no living relatives. But the Portuguese state didn't retain his estate, as is customary in such cases, because Luis Carlos had made arrangements 13 years earlier: his 12-room apartment in Lisbon, house in the north of Portugal, car, and 25,000 euros were to be divided equally among 70 people whose names he chose at random from a Lisbon phone book. Because it's rather unusual to have a will in Portugal, many of Luis Carlos' benefactors believed they were being scammed.

7. Archibald McArthur

McArthur was a mysterious character. He lived in Dodgeville, Wisconsin after the Civil War; though he started out penniless, he soon became a successful attorney and amassed a sizeable fortune. And just as suddenly, he decided to take a personal vow of poverty—gone were the snappy suits and fancy hats he'd become famous for among Dodgeville residents. He gave away almost everything and hung out in the cemetery a lot. In 1922, he bought a car and moved to Florida. When he died, his will revealed that he had left each of his remaining relatives $5. The rest of his money (estimated to be worth around $3 million today) went to a man he'd once met on a park bench. McArthur is something of a celebrity in Wisconsin, where he's usually just called the Dodgeville Hermit.

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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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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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