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5 of History's Worst Perpetrators of Corruption

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This week, Alaska Senator Ted Stevens was convicted of seven corruption charges, which complicates his bid for reelection next week. But as this list of crooked leaders proves, power and corruption are old friends.

1. Good Ol' Boss Tweed

The undisputed poster child for graft and greed in American politics, Boss William Tweed raised corruption to an art form. As a member of New York's Tammany Hall, Tweed and his cronies, including Mayor Fernando Wood, ran New York in the Civil War era as their own private money factory. Tweed once bought 300 benches for $5 each, then sold them to the city for $600 a pop. And that's just the tip of it.


The building of City Hall was a clinic in graft: the city was charged $7,500 for every thermometer, $41,190 for each broom, and $5.7 million for furniture and carpets. One carpenter even received almost $361,000 for a single month's work. And although he was crooked as a dog's hind leg, Tweed does get a bit of credit from some historians for under­ taking many important projects that improved life in New York (albeit at enormous financial gain to himself). Tweed's illicit profits were said to be in the range of $200 million, and that was in the 1860s! The law eventually caught up with the Boss, though, and he died in prison in 1878.

2. President Grant's Cronies

US-Grant.jpgThe 18th president of the United States was a great war general. But he was less skilled at avoiding scandal. To be fair, it wasn't so much Grant himself as the cast of characters around him that caused all the trouble. Grant's period in office (1869"“1877) was marred by four ma­jor scandals: Crédit Mobilier, a railroad construction scandal during which the federal government and Union Pacific stockholders were bilked out of some $20 million; the Whis­key Ring, wherein over 100 Treasury Depart­ment officials were convicted of taking bribes and cutting deals for distillers; the Indian Ring, another scandal of bribes from compa­nies licensed to trade on Indian reservations; and Black Friday, a scheme involving Grant's brother­-in­-law that attempted to artificially inflate the price of gold. So, what's buried in Grant's Tomb? Let's just say a lot of dirty laundry.

3. The Entire Nation of Bangladesh?

bang.jpgWell, you have to be the best at something. The non-government watchdog group Trans­parency International repeatedly ranks Ban­gladesh near the top of the list of the world's most corrupt nations. You can barely walk a block in the capital of Dhakar without coming face-­to­-face with graft: you have to pay the postman to get your mail; bus drivers pay cops to let them drive their routes; victims of crime have to pay the cops to have someone arrested; doctors take bribes to dis­pense medicine; even meter readers get their palms greased for keeping energy bills low. It's estimated that 6% of the nation's GNP is spent on corruption. Not surprising in a place where the unemployment rate hovers around 70%.

4. The Less-Than-Honorable Judge Maloney

the-gavel.jpgIn the 1970s and '80s, the Cook County Circuit Court system based in Chicago was so corrupt and dirty that two federal investigations, Op­erations Greylord and Gambat, were under­taken to expose it. Lots of judges went to jail for their underhanded dealings, but the worst of the worst was the not-­so­-honorable Thomas J. Maloney. During the 13 years he spent on the bench (1977 to 1990), Maloney "fixed" as many as six murder trials, taking bribes from $10,000 to $100,000 from gangs to con­vict members of other gangs of murder or manslaughter. Eventually, the justice got his own justice as he was indicted and sentenced to 15 years and 9 months in prison. The fact is he's the only judge in Illinois history to be convicted of fixing a trial. Of course, there would have been another in the same Greylord operation, Judge Frank J. Wilson, but he blew his own brains out just before the Feds came a­-knocking.

5. Alexander the Waste

alex-vi.jpgSure, there have been some bad popes. With a list numbering 262 and counting, there are bound to be a few bad apples, right? But Alex­ander VI (reigned 1492"“1503) was the baddest apple of 'em all. A member of the Spanish branch of the powerful and corrupt Borgia family, Alexander bought and bribed his way onto the papal throne, and used it to gather wealth and women for himself and influence for his children. By some accounts he had as many as seven illegitimate children and car­ried on with numerous mistresses while he was pope. Alexander also made a fortune sell­ing indulgences, and married off his beautiful fair­haired daughter Lucrezia three times, each time to someone richer and more powerful. When the pope finally checked out, he was left to rot and turn purple in the Sistine Chapel, until his bloated corpse had to be stuffed and crammed into his coffin—a suit­ably rotten ending for a very rotten man.

This article was excerpted from Forbidden Knowledge: A Wickedly Smart Guide to History's Naughtiest Bits. You can pick up a copy in the mental_floss store.

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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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