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5 Notable American Tax Protestors

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Since the time of our founding fathers (you know, the ones with the tea in the harbor and the complaints about that whole taxation without representation thing?) there have been more than a few Americans who took a stand against the man and said read my lips, no more taxes. Some have good reasons "“ after all, Mahatma Gandhi advocated tax protestation as a quick and nonviolent way to bring down a government "“ and some have really dumb reasons. So, in the spirit of tax season, here are a few of the country's most notable tax protestors.

1. Julia "Butterfly" Hill

Julia "Butterfly" Hill, an environmental activist best known for the 738 days she lived in a California redwood tree in an effort to keep the Pacific Logging Company from cutting it down, is also what's called a war-tax resister. In 2003, Hill refused to pay her taxes, instead sending the money that she would have paid to nonprofit social service and environmental organizations, in a effort to speak out against the war in Iraq. "Thousands of others before me have taken this stand," she said at the time. "I have thought through this very carefully, and with a clear mind and heart I am humanely re-directing my tax payments to where they belong, because our current federal government refuses to do so."

2. Ed & Elaine Brown

Browns.jpgIn 2007, Ed and Elaine Brown of New Hampshire were both convicted on several counts of tax fraud and evasion, prompting a long standoff between them and the authorities. According to evidence presented by the feds, the Browns had basically stopped paying taxes in the mid 1990s and had hidden about $1.9 million of income from the government. Despite having paid income taxes prior to the "˜90s, the Browns claimed the "861 argument." Under this particular theory, the domestic income of US citizens and residents is not supposed to be taxable, owing to some "ambiguity" in the tax code "“ so the Browns said there was no law forcing them to pay income tax. They also claimed that they were not US citizens, that they no longer recognized US law (only God's law), and that the authorities pursuing them were in collusion with a nefarious cabal of Freemasons, Zionist Jews and a secret society known as the Illuminati. While holed up in what the news media called a "compound" "“ an energy-efficient, well-fortified, and way-off-the-grid home "“ the Browns relied on a network of equally batty supporters to bring them food, water and other supplies. Throughout the standoff, Browns claimed (on their MySpace page, on which they adopted the New Hampshire creed, "Live free or die," as their motto) that they'd never surrender, that it would be in a bloody blaze of glory and bullets that they would be removed from their home.

That, however, was not the case. On October 4, 2007, federal marshals, posing as supporters of the Browns, lured the couple out on to the front porch, where they arrested them without incident. Ed and Elaine Brown are currently serving out their respective sentences, Ed in a US penitentiary in Illinois and Elaine at a federal medical center near Ft. Worth, Texas.

3. Vivien Kellems

Vivien_Kellems.jpgVivien Kellems, a Connecticut industrialist, spent much of her adult life fighting against what she considered improper taxation. Starting in the late 1940s, Kellems began protesting the taxes she was asked to withhold from her employees' paychecks, saying, "If they [the government] wanted me to be their [tax] agent, they'd have to pay me, and I want a badge." With her company facing bankruptcy after a lengthy court battle, Kellems ultimately gave in and followed tax regulations. In her personal life, however, Kellems continued to refuse to pay her taxes, sending in blank tax forms each year. Kellems took her case before the Supreme Court multiple times, but died in 1975, before her final appeal could be heard.

4. Wesley Snipes

Actor Wesley Snipes, best known for films such as White Man Can't Jump and the Blade trilogy, as well as his appearance in the video for Michael Jackson's "Bad," was sentenced to three years in prison in April 2008 after the court found that he willfully failed to file his tax returns. While he was acquitted of the charge of conspiracy to defraud the government, Snipes had been involved in a shady tax protestation deal, attempting to use the classic tax protester's line, the "861 argument" (see Ed and Elaine Brown). This argument didn't so much fly and the two people who had helped Snipes were convicted. The court later ruled that Snipes could remain free while his case is on appeal.

5. Charles Merrill

merrill.jpgCharles Merrill, a 75-year-old gay artist living in Palm Springs, Calif., has refused to pay his taxes for the past four years, after President George Bush used his State of the Union address to urge Congress to pass a federal amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Merrill said in an interview recently that he would gladly pay his taxes "“ as soon as the US government affords gays and lesbians the same rights as straight citizens. After Proposition 8 passed in California and similar ballot initiatives restricting the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman passed in other states, gay and lesbian activists, including singer Melissa Etheridge, are calling for a national boycott of taxes this April 15.

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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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