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The Million-dollar Office Redecoration: It Could've Been Worse

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Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain spent $1.22 million in company dollars to redecorate his office in early 2008. The Daily Beast has a list of all the items on which he spent all that money. Shortly after, it became clear even outside the company that Merrill Lynch was headed for financial disaster. The company was taken over by Bank of America, who announced that Thain resigned his position last Thursday. But was $1.22 million really that extravagant? He could have spent much more on office furniture.


Thain spent $16,000 for a custom coffee table and and another $25,000 for a mahogany pedestal table. Mere chicken feed, of course, since the most expensive table ever sold was the Tufft pier table, which sold for $4.6 million in 1990. It may have been a quirk, since Christie's expected it to sell for $3 million less. You can get a reproduction of this table for a mere $3,595.00 (free shipping!), which doesn't come close to what Thain spent for his tables.



The cost of Thain's new sofa was only $15,000. He could have spent more, but he might have had to sacrifice comfort. This stainless steel sofa designed by Ron Arad was expected to fetch $300,000 at auction. The final sale price was $206,500. The matching chair went for $68,500.



Another item on the list was $18,000 for a George IV desk. I found a picture of a George IV mahogany desk, but no price attached (if you have to ask, you can't afford it). $18,000 may be a fair price, but who knows? It doesn't seem like anything special -in fact, it looks a lot like my computer desk, which I snagged from a relative's storage shed. For $18,000, Thain should have had a custom-built Lego desk. Or he could've spent $200,000 on a Power Desk from Parnian Furniture. These are hand-built over five months to exact size and shape specifications for each customer.



Thain spent $13,000 for a chandelier for his private dining room. Although the question of how one gets a private dining room included with an office burns within me, this is not a lot to pay for a good chandelier. This one went for $450,000. On eBay. In 2006. It contains gold, crystal, and rubies, but the price was really justified by the floor lamp and sconces that came with the deal.



Thain spent a total of $131,000 for area rugs. That sounds like a lot of money, but it doesn't hold a candle to the 5'x7' Persian silk rug that was sold at auction last year for $4,450,500. That's over $700 per square inch! You'd expect to pay a lot for a hand-woven silk rug estimated to be 400-500 years old, especially one from the estate of Doris Duke, but that's a lot of dough to wipe your feet on!

Fabric for a Roman Shade


Another item on Thain's list of expenditures was $11,000 for fabric for a Roman Shade. I wasn't sure what a Roman Shade is, so I looked up pictures and  instructions for making one. You would have to smile thinking of the CEO of Merrill Lynch making his own shades using WikiHow. The instructions say you only need enough fabric to cover the window, doubled if you use the same fabric for the lining. What would that be, three or four yards, max? What kind of fabric could possibly cost that much? The Belgian textile company Scabal was already known for their super-expensive vicuna wool they call Summit, which costs £1500 per meter, which is about $3,000 a meter, or slightly less for a yard. This past year they outdid themselves by introducing Gold Treasure, a Merino wool fabric with real gold thread woven in, at £4,000 per meter, which is very expensive in American dollars per yard. The normal use for this fabric is to make men's suits. And not very many of them.

Wall Sconces


Thain paid $2,700 for six wall sconces. That's $450 each, although some of that would have been sales tax. He could have spent a little more and bought Leaf Silhouette Wall Sconces by Fluorescent Hubbardton Forge for $488.70 each, which is marked down from $678.75 each. Bargain!



OK, $5,000 for a mirror? For a mere grand more, Thain could've bought a McLeod Mirror powered by a Mac Mini and a webcam. This mirror takes your image and processes into art.



Of course, you must have lots of chairs for the folks who will be impressed by your newly redecorated office. Six dining room chairs cost $37,000, and two more chairs ran an additional $87,000. I can understand how it would cost more than usual to buy dining room chairs without the table -a store usually doesn't want to split up a set. Chairs are more expensive in the United Arab Emirates. This office chair was designed by Hadi Teherani and features gold plating. It's yours for €50,000 or $65,500. Perfect for supporting your tush while you count the money, whether it's from oil wells or investors.

Sooner or later, we will see pictures of the CEO's office at Merrill Lynch and decide if he spend the company's money wisely. Or you can read between the lines.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]