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3 Bubbles That Burst

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Like many young people, I'm gradually coming to terms with the sad fact that I won't be able to retire at 25 with the fabulous wealth I accumulated through shrewd sports card speculation in the late 80s and early 90s. While it's disappointing to learn that one can't trade his stack of Harold Miner rookie cards for a new car, there's some small solace in knowing that you weren't the only person to be caught in a bubble. (At least be thankful that you had baseball cards and not, say, Pets.com stock.) Let's have a look at three other popped bubbles:

Tulipmania

Although tulips are inextricably linked to the Netherlands in most peoples' brains, the flowers didn't actually start growing in the area until the late 16th century, when bulbs were imported from the Ottoman Empire. When the plants finally found soil, though, they quickly became immensely popular. Every Dutch aristocrat longed for a garden full of the beautiful, rare spring flowers, and tulip bulbs were suddenly the Netherlands' hottest commodity. Even better, the country's booming trade with the New World had given the potential buyers purses full of disposable income, so there was nothing to keep a boom from taking off.

By 1623, the market for tulip bulbs was starting to warm up, and by 1636, it was overheating. Although the surviving evidence is largely anecdotal, there are stories of collectors being offered the equivalent of year's pay for a single bulb"¦and turning down the offer. Speculators traded their houses and livestock for bulbs they thought they could flip for a large profit, and professional tulip traders peddled their wares throughout the country. Enterprising traders were even offering what amounted to futures contracts for bulbs they intended to plant at later date; this practice was decried as the "tulip wind trade" because the buyers rarely got any sort of tangible return.

The deathblow for the craze didn't come until February 1637 when a group of traders gathered in Haarlem to auction their bulbs. No one seemed interested in buying the bulbs, though, and the traders began dumping their bulbs at reduced prices. The public, though, had already begun to panic and wanted no part of the tulip trade. Certain varieties lost 99% of their value in a matter of days, and speculators faced financial ruin.

Some modern academics have questioned whether these tales of the tulipmania's scope are a bit exaggerated, but the tale is still recounted as a cautionary tale after a speculative bubble bursts. At the end of the day, wouldn't you rather have a garden full of tulips than a portfolio full of dot-com stocks?

The South Sea Company

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The South Sea Company was established in 1711 as the exclusive English trading partner with Spain's holdings in South America. As the plan went, the treaty ending the War of Spanish Succession, which was being fought at the time, would grant the company extensive trading rights with these colonies. The South Sea Company could provide the colonies with slaves, and an even more rewarding racket could be built around trading English cloths and textiles to the natives for precious metals and jewels.

However, when the war finally wound up with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the trading rights weren't as extensive as the South Sea Company's shareholders had hoped. The company could only send one general-commerce ship to South America each year, and contentious relations with Spain meant that these voyages were vulnerable to harassment by the Spanish navy. Although the South Sea Company was fairly efficient as a slave trader, it didn't seem to have the huge long-term potential that its directors claimed.

The company continued to hawks its potentially lucrative trade in the Americas as a great business opportunity, though. The South Sea Company began taking on England's war debts and converting them into equity in the company. For the holders of these debts, converting them into South Sea Company stock seemed like a great way to get in on an up-and-coming commercial enterprise, while the company itself gained a steady revenue stream as the country paid off war debts it now held. In 1720, Parliament agreed to let the company take over an even larger share of the country's debt, and the company's stock went through the roof. Stock prices rose from 128 pounds in January to over a 1,000 pounds in August, and investors were euphoric.

There was a slight hitch, though; this whole endeavor was something of a pyramid scheme. The company was trading its equity for the government debt, but the underlying trading business with South America was fundamentally weak. As investors gradually realized that the South Sea Company had very little in the way of actual products or services to offer, the stock price collapsed. In short, all of this government debt had been converted into stock in a company with comparatively meager prospects for future earnings. By September 1720, the price had dropped all the way back down to 150 pounds a share and continued falling.

This precipitous drop undercut the entire British stock market, and investors wanted answers. The ensuing investigation showed that the South Sea Company had been allowed to get away with such shaky business practices in part because it had bribed officials with cash and free stock. Not everyone lost out on the transaction, though; Robert Walpole, a longtime critic of the company and reformer following the collapse of the South Sea Bubble, parlayed his role in straightening this mess out into the role of the first de factor prime minister.

Beanie Babies

beanie-babies.jpgNothing says "Destined to hold its value indefinitely" quite like a teddy bear stuffed with plastic pellets. Or so collectors thought in the late 1990s when Beanie Babies, the plush stuffed animal brainchild of Ty Inc. founder Ty Warner, were sweeping the national collecting market.


What made these little stuffed critters a billion-dollar industry that sucked in both children and scores of adults? A number of factors contributed to the beanbags' meteoric rise as collectibles. Ty's brass originally envisioned the product line as a set of inexpensive, high quality stuffed animals that kids could afford. Prices were generally around $5, low enough that kids could get the whole set of Beanies. Ty eschewed normal distribution chains for stuffed animals; the company avoided big chain discount retailers in favor of smaller gift-shop type outlets, a decision that made the product seem classier and rare.

Moreover, the Beanie Babies themselves received constant tweaks. Colors or names changed, their trademark ear tags would be subtly redesigned, and, most importantly, Ty retired certain models, further spiking collector demand.

As you may remember, the secondary market for the toys absolutely exploded. By 1996, Beanies had graduated from kids' fad to full-blown collecting craze. It seemed that almost any Beanie could conceivably become the next hot limited edition, so collectors snapped them up as soon as they hit store shelves. A royal blue Peanut the Elephant, which was only produced in limited quantities for a short time in 1995, could sell for over $3000. Other individual Beanies, like a wingless Quackers the Duck, fetched prices well over $1,000 apiece. The good times were never going to stop rolling, and Beanie Babies seemed poised to replace the less-adorable dollar as the nation's currency.

That is, until the good times promptly stopped rolling. By 1999, the craze had started to lose its steam. Most of the newer toys hadn't appreciated like their predecessors, possibly because the market was so flooded with bean-filled animals. (Ty's revenues had ballooned to over $1 billion, which represents an awful lot of stuffed bears flowing into collectors' hands.) In 1999, Ty announced it was completely retiring the entire Beanie line, and although a fan outcry convinced the company to revive the line in 2000, the hysteria was dead.

Certain rare Beanies still have significant value, but they're far below their heady late-90s peaks. Peanut the Elephant seems to be bravely soldiering on; two examples of his royal blue variant sold for $1100 and $2000 on eBay last week. These examples are exceptions, though; the great bulk of speculative Beanie purchases seem to be worth a few bucks at most.

Ethan Trex grew up idolizing Vince Coleman, and he kind of still does. Ethan co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

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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