Original image

5 Movies About Underhanded Financial Shenanigans

Original image

If you're tired of hearing about the financial misdeeds of Bernie Madoff, greedy AIG executives, and unscrupulous mortgage lenders, then it's time you got away from it all by watching a few movies about the financial misdeeds of fictional characters like Gordon Gekko. Here are five films that make rigging the financial system seem much more glamorous than our current day crooks do.

1. Wall Street (1987)

Pitting the hard-charging and ambitious financial up-and-comer Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) against his hard working and dedicated father Carl (Martin Sheen) and set against a backdrop of corporate greed, institutionally ingrained dishonesty, and 1980s decadence, this movie tells us everything we need to know about how the game is played. It's interesting to note that Michael Douglas's "Greed is Good" speech was inspired by an address from Wall Street trader Ivan Boesky. Months after making the address, Boesky had to pay a $100 million fine to the SEC for insider trading.

2. Boiler Room (2000)

Giovanni Ribisi, looking all of 12 years old, plays Ben Younger, a new associate at a very shady brokerage firm. By the end of the film, he comes to realize that his and his partners' hard sales techniques and disregard for proper portfolio diversification have real world consequences. Set against a backdrop of fast money and "irrational exuberance," Boiler Room makes every broker look like a crook, and every ordinary citizen look like an easy mark. I have a feeling that this one has been on Jon Stewart's viewing list for a while.

3. Rogue Trader (1999)

Based on the true story of British trader Nick Leeson (played charmingly by Ewan McGregor), this film tells the account of how a single man, in way over his head and without any supervision from the home office, bankrupted one of Britain's oldest and most trusted institutions, Barings Bank. Through a series of bad trades, fraud, and greed, Leeson, from his perch at the Singapore International Monetary Exchange, cost his company more than a billion dollars in the mid "˜90s. This is a must see if you prefer short straddles and naked calls over car chases and sex scenes.

4. Barbarians at the Gate (1993)

This made-for-TV movie captures the insanity that surrounded the leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco. Contrasting sharply from the slick, coiffed tyrants of Oliver Stone's Wall Street, these characters seem more like real people "“ no less greedy, but real people all the same. James Garner plays the wonderfully off-kilter CEO F. Ross Johnson, and Jonathan Pryce plays venture capitalist Henry Kravis. From all reports, this film stays pretty close to real events while still being immensely entertaining.

5. Trading Places (1983)


There may be no better villains in movie history than the Duke brothers, played exquisitely by Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche. Still the funniest movie ever made about commodities trading.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
Original image