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9 Big Names Who Lived Above the (Tax) Law

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1. Spiro Agnew

It should come as no surprise that the right hand man of "Tricky Dick" Nixon may not have been quite on the straight and narrow. In 1973, just after Nixon and Agnew were elected to their second term as President and Vice President (respectively), Agnew became the subject of an investigation that alleged the Vice-President was not only a tax evader, but a money launderer to boot. As a result of the allegations, Agnew would resign as Vice President and would be sentenced to three years probation and fined $10,000. Less than 10 years later, he would be in court again. In 1981 he was ordered by a Maryland court to repay the nearly $300,000 he accepted in bribes while in office.

2. Boris Becker

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German tennis star Boris Becker was convicted of tax evasion in 2002. Officials say in the early 90s, Becker was trying to avoid paying notoriously high German taxes by living in Monaco, a tax haven. What he forgot to mention was that he also owned an apartment in Munich, which officials claim was his real place of residence. After a ten-year investigation, Becker admitted to the court that he knew little about German tax laws and may have done something wrong, but that the apartment was only a place to sleep between tournaments. The court was skeptical and forced him to repay the over 3 million euros he owed the government; he was also given a suspended jail sentence. Becker has since sold the Munich apartment and officially moved to Switzerland, another tax haven.

3. Willie Nelson

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Willie Nelson is the poster boy for tax evasion. In 1990, the IRS sent him a bill for $16.7 million dollars in back taxes. Faced with this rather large debt, Willie decided to try and pay the IRS back by releasing a double album entitled The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories? The IRS, ever helpful, sped up the process by selling nearly everything he owned. Lucky for Willie, his friends purchased most of the items and returned them to Willie either free of charge or for a nominal fee. He managed to pay back the IRS in only three years.

4. Darryl Strawberry

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He was the baseball's number one draft pick in 1980 and the Rookie of the Year in 1983, but talent, fame and fortune couldn't keep Darryl Strawberry out of trouble with the law. In addition to allegedly breaking the nose of his first wife, Strawberry was accused of hitting his pregnant girlfriend, violating his probation, soliciting sex from an undercover police officer, possession of cocaine, and a hit-and-run while on painkillers. If that wasn't enough to keep him busy, in the late 80s, he failed to pay taxes on income he made from autograph and memorabilia shows (The exact same thing Pete Rose would go to prison for in 1990). Strawberry was convicted of the tax charges in 1995 and ordered to pay back more than $450,000 in back taxes. Allegedly, he didn't. The government sued again, and in February of this year, Strawberry was ordered to pay the more than $430,000 he still owes for not having given the government the money they were due.

5. Richard Hatch

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The first winner of the American version of Survivor was well known for his lack of clothing on the show, as well as for his lack of paying his taxes. Hatch was convicted in 2006 of failing to report his over $1 million in winnings as a result of the show. In court, Hatch's lawyer said his client was "the world's worst bookkeeper" and that Hatch just forgot to report it. The judge didn't buy it and now Hatch is serving time in prison for his forgetfulness. He is expected to be released in October of 2009. Hopefully Hatch has learned this very valuable lesson. It's hard to hide a million dollars from the government, especially when an estimated 51 million people watched you win it.

6. Leona Helmsley

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In 1989, the late "Queen of Mean" was convicted of tax evasion relating to renovations she and her husband were making on their $11 million estate. During testimony, Helmsley's maid quoted her as saying "We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes," an allegation she would later deny. She would spend 18 months in prison for cheating the government out of more than a million dollars. Helmsley passed away in August of 2007. At the time of her death, her estate was worth over $4 billion "“ $12 million of which she left to her white Maltese, Trouble.

7. Joseph Nunan

He's not exactly the most high profile tax evader in the world, but Joseph Nunan may hold the record for being the most ironic of our alleged cheaters. That's because Nunan was a former commissioner of the IRS (1944-1947) and in 1952 was busted for tax evasion. What sort of horrible fraud did he commit? Apparently Nunan won an $1,800 bet that Harry Truman would win the election, but forgot to claim his winnings on his taxes.

8. Wesley Snipes

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In 2006, the famous actor was indicted on conspiracy charges that alleged he falsified past tax returns. (He claimed he was due a refund of nearly $12 million.) The government alleges that Snipes claimed the refunds using the "861 argument," which states not all income is taxable. They also accused him of failing to file tax returns from 1999 to 2004. He was acquitted of the major conspiracy charge, but the court found him guilty of the three lesser misdemeanor charges for failing to file his tax returns. In April 2008, he was sentenced to three years in prison.

9. Al Capone

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As head of the Chicago underworld during the 1920s, Al Capone was involved in some less than legal activities. Dubbed Public Enemy #1, he became the focus of an intense investigation by the FBI. It was tough going for law enforcement; Capone owned nothing in his own name and used front men, making it almost impossible to get the charges the government threw at him to stick. That is, until a stack of paper would rat him out.

During a routine raid of one of Capone's warehouses, Eliot Ness and his "Untouchables" stumbled across a desk drawer containing account information for the mobster. It would be just enough to seal his fate. The man responsible for Chicago's then-illegal alcohol trade, the corrupting of local government and the St. Valentine's Day massacre wouldn't be taken down by some lousy capital murder charge. The king of Chicago would be done in by paperwork. Capone once allegedly said "The income tax law is a lot of bunk. The government can't collect legal taxes from illegal money." But this time, the government did collect. After his trial in 1931, Capone was ordered to pay $80,000 dollars in fines and was sentenced to 11 years in prison. He would serve only six and a half of those years, but they took their toll. While locked up, numerous attempts on his life were made and the syphilis he contracted during his youth would rapidly progress, leaving him a shadow of his former self. Suffering from syphilitic dementia, he was released 1939 and after another stint in jail, would live out the remainder of his days with his family in Florida.

Stefanie Fontanez is an occasional contributor to mentalfloss.com. She also designed this t-shirt.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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May 23, 2017
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