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Notable Victims of Bernie Madoff

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It seems like every time I turn around, some other notable person is lamenting their losses in Bernard Madoff's now-infamous Ponzi scheme. My parents-in-law live in West Palm Beach, not far from the ritzy country clubs where Madoff conned a great many people; the shockwaves of their losses are still reverberating through South Florida. A friend of mine's aunt is a notable Los Angeles restaurateur -- she even started a restaurant with uber-chef Mario Batali -- and lost a humbling sum in the Madoff scheme. There are lots of regular-joe victims, and an increasing number of celebrities are coming out of the Madoff closet. Here are a few you might be surprised to hear about.

Elie Weisel

Holocaust survivor, acclaimed author and noted philanthropist Elie Weisel lost most of his personal wealth in the Madoff scheme. Worse still, Weisel's famous charity lost as much as $15.2 million. Interviewed by the New York Times, Weisel fantasized about a punishment for the man about whom he says "'psychopath' is too nice a word" -- "I would like him to be in a solitary cell with only a screen, and on that screen for at least five years of his life, every day and every night, there should be pictures of his victims, one after the other after the other, all the time a voice saying, "˜Look what you have done to this old lady, look what you have done to that child, look what you have done,' nothing else."

Senator Frank Lautenberg

The New Jersey senator is the second oldest (after the venerable Robert Byrd of West Virginia). Born to a poor family of immigrants who sold coal and worked in mills and factories to make ends meet, he pulled himself up by the bootstraps, so to speak, after serving in the signal corps during WWII. It's perhaps ironic that several of the bills Lautenberg has championed most loudly were designed to increase penalties for those convicted of theft (specifically carjacking), and that in 2006 he described the Dubai World Ports bill as a "deal with the devil." He certainly made a deal with the devil -- unwittingly, maybe -- and lost an undisclosed sum in doing so.

Fairfield County, Connecticut

According to Bloomberg News: First Selectman Ken Flatto and other elected officials in Fairfield, Connecticut, thought the 58,000- person town's pension fund was holding up well amid the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. The 18 percent decline in total assets since the end of June looked smart compared with the 31 percent plunge in the Standard & Poor's 500 Index, and total assets of $286 million left a cushion over the $270 million of estimated liabilities. Flatto's mood darkened yesterday when he heard Bernard Madoff, a Wall Street executive who oversaw $42 million of the assets, had been arrested and charged with fraud. "We classified this on our portfolio as one of the more conservative investments," Flatto said in an interview. "You rely on your experts and your managers to be honest."

Jeffrey Katzenberg

The CEO of Dreamworks reportedly had "millions" tied up with Madoff. It's also been reported that a charity foundation of Katzenberg's pal Steven Spielberg -- the Wunderkinder Foundation -- was hit hard.

Pedro Almodovar

The dynamo Spanish director of such films as Talk to Her -- whom Penelope Cruz thanked whilst grasping her brand-new Oscar for essentially making her career happen -- had a great deal of the funds of their production company, El Deseo, invested with a firm that in turn had invested heavily with Madoff. This truly was the Ponzi scheme heard 'round the world.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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