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9 Bizarre Moments in Economic History

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In the last 2,000 years, commodity shortages, financial speculation, wars, famines, and outright manias have created some pretty strange economic behavior throughout the world. Here are nine examples.

1. Cake or Death?

In order to stop rising inflation and devaluation of the currency in third century Rome, Emperor Diocletian instituted fixed prices on most consumer goods. Anyone selling goods at prices higher than those of the emperor was put to death; this led to hoarding of goods. A law was then passed that forbade the hoarding of goods. Penalty? Death. So people just closed their businesses, then another law was passed. You guessed it: shut down your business or fail to follow in your father's business? Death. It's amazing the Roman Empire lasted as long as it did.

2. Gonna Barter Like It's B.C. 99

When the Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century, so did the Roman financial system. Part of the collapse was the disappearance of Roman coinage. Nowhere was this more evident than in England, where, according to archeological evidence, money basically disappeared, driving the British isles straight back to a barter economy. Coinage only came back centuries later when the English were forced to pay protection money (Danegeld) to the Vikings to stop the constant pillaging.

3. 99.9% Pure

In 15th century Germany, grain shortages "“ acceptable "“ frequently led to beer shortages "“ unacceptable. In response, brewers in towns like Munich and Regensburg used seeds, spices, and rushes to flavor their beers. Showing an uncomfortable foreshadowing of future events, German authorities instituted purity laws stating that only water, barley, and hops could be used in the brewing of beer. The rule, or Reinheitsgebot, is still on the books today.

4. Nothing But the Best for France

While the Sun King, Louis XIV, and his building of Versailles typically get all the credit for bankrupting France in the seventeenth century, his Minister of Finance, Jean-Baptiste Colbert deserves some kudos as well. Colbert's tax schemes, deficit spending, and manic obsession with the production of luxury goods "“ to the detriment, or outright exclusion of ordinary consumer goods "“ emptied the French treasuries, drove the peasantry to starvation, and laid the foundation for the bloodiest revolution of the age. But, let's face it: who wouldn't trade the fate of an entire nation for a really, really well made tapestry?

5. Adjustable Rate Mortgage, Archduke Ferdinand?

In the 1860s, the rulers of the newly-formed Austro-Hungarian Empire encouraged their bankers to be more free with their lending standards. Their goal was to encourage growth in the empire. The result (this is going to sound eerily familiar) was over-speculation in building, massive default on borrowed funds, and economic collapse throughout Central Europe. The worldwide depression reached all the way to the United States and triggered the Panic of 1873. On the bright side, many of the most beautiful buildings in Europe come from this period of "irrational exuberance."

6. Mississippi Burning

John Law, a Scottish banker and businessman, took control of a French enterprise called the Mississippi Company in 1717. In just a few years, he turned the company into the main economic force behind the French colonies throughout the world. The share price for the company went from about 500 livres in 1719 to 10,000 livres in 1720. Just one year later though, in a rather Enron-like turnaround, the stock price collapsed, Law fled France, and the French government (as the primary shareholder) was forced to cancel a significant portion of its debt obligations leaving lenders throughout the world ruined. Economists refer to the episode as the "Mississippi Bubble."

7. The Mason-Dixon Bottom Line

Many have read about the effects of hyperinflation on the German Weimar Republic. From 1920-1923, prices in Germany increased as much as 3.25 million percent. People burned their old currency for warmth, since it was less costly than buying wood. But, few know that the same type of hyperinflation, albeit to a lesser extent, affected the Confederate States of America. From 1861 to 1864, the commodity price index rose as high as 10% a month. By the end of the Civil War, the cost of living in dear old Dixie was 92% higher than before the war.

8. Prayer Pays

In 1943, due to shortage of raw materials like paper and leather, and an increase in wartime piety, there was an actual Bible shortage in the United States.

9. Tokyo Falling

Japan had one of the most meteoric economic rises of the twentieth century. By the late "˜80s, property values had risen so high that all the land in Japan was worth four times the value of all the property in the United States. The real estate value of Tokyo alone was valued at more than that of all America. By the end of the century, however, the Tokyo stock exchange was off 60 percent of its 1989 high, and property values had fallen as much as 80 percent. Some blame over-speculation, others blame Michael Crichton's novel Rising Sun.

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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]