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Angela Merkel: The Sharp Axe of Reason

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The global recession has hit Germany hard; its economy will likely shrink by 6 percent this year alone. Why should you care? Because it has the biggest economy in Europe and it's the biggest exporter in the world. More than that, you should care because an economic meltdown in Germany could change the course of history. That's not an overstatement. In the 1920s, massive hyperinflation rendered the German currency worthless; at 1 trillion marks to the dollar, a wheelbarrow full of cash wouldn't buy you a newspaper. In response to the dismal situation, the country turned to fascism, allowing the Nazi party to come to power, which in turn led to World War II.

So, at a time like the present, when the German economy stands on the verge of collapse, it would be comforting to know that the country has a calm, rational leader at its helm—one who listens well to others and believes in personal freedom. The good news is that it does, in the form of Angela Merkel, Germany's first female chancellor and its most popular leader since, well, Hitler.

Behind the Iron Curtain

Born in 1954, Angela Merkel grew up poor in East Germany, where her father was a Protestant minister. Because it was a communist country, the government held him in constant suspicion for worshiping something other than the state.

When Angela was a teenager, the Stasi—East Germany's vicious secret police—interrogated everyone in the family. Young Merkel wasn't tortured, just intimidated and asked to spy on her family. She refused.

wallNearly 20 years later, the Berlin Wall came down. Angela, who'd earned her Ph.D. in chemistry, was working as a scientist in an East Berlin lab at the time. When officials announced that travel to West Berlin was no longer forbidden, she did what many East Berliners did that day: She walked to the other side. Standing on the streets of West Germany, Merkel was overwhelmed by the possibilities of freedom. In that moment, she decided to make politics her career.

Merkel wasn't completely without experience. In her youth, she'd served as an officer of "Agitprop" (Agitation and Propaganda) for the state's communist youth organization. Although her work had focused on promoting the sciences, she parlayed her previous experience into a new gig in the burgeoning democratic movement. Within months, she became East Germany's press secretary. Next, after the country officially reunified with West Germany in October 1990, she ran for Parliament and won. The following year, Chancellor Helmut Kohl made her the youngest member of his cabinet.

Part of the reason for Merkel's meteoric rise was that, after spending her childhood behind the Iron Curtain, she appreciated free markets and small government. That led her to join the Christian Democratic Union, a conservative, male-dominated party akin to the moderate wing of the Republican Party in the United States. The Christian Democrats enjoyed using Merkel as their poster child for diversity, which helped her move up the party ranks.

The other reason for Merkel's rapid rise was simply her intelligence. Her experiences as a scientist taught her an analytical approach to problem solving that the popular press would later dub the "Merkel Method." As Germany's minister of the environment in the mid-1990s, she pushed for the creation of the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement to curb greenhouse gases. It's not surprising that, as a scientist, she would lead the fight against global warming. But as a conservative, it was an unlikely move. By Merkel's calculations, it was all about capitalism. "Unchecked climate change is likely to result in at least a 5 percent reduction—and even a 20 percent reduction—in global GDP," Merkel said in 2007. "Effective action to protect the climate would cost a good deal less—around 1 percent of the global GDP."

Under Merkel's guidance—both as the minister of environment and, later, as chancellor—Germany has introduced an environmental agenda that puts other European nations to shame. For example, while England only produced 3 percent of its electricity from renewable resources in 2007, Germany managed 14 percent. Merkel's goal is that by the year 2030, 45 percent of Germany's electricity will be renewable.

The Rational Choice for Chancellor

Even with her party's full support, getting Merkel elected chancellor in 2005 wasn't easy. Many Germans disliked the idea of a woman governing the country. Others thought she wasn't woman enough. They saw Merkel as a rational and clear-headed politician, but also a cold and calculating one. Despite being married (she's been married twice, in fact), Merkel was roundly criticized for not having children and for her austere physical appearance, which is why in 2005, Angela Merkel started wearing make-up for the first time in her life.

At the end of election season, her party, the Christian Democrats, won only 35.2 percent of the seats in parliament. The other major party, the Social Democrats, won 34.4 percent. Because neither party had a majority, German law dictated that they had to come together and broker a deal to select the next chancellor. The process was tantamount to getting all the moderate Republicans and Democrats in Congress to agree on the same person for president. In other words, it was a mess. After three weeks of debates and backroom negotiations, Merkel was named chancellor on November 22, 2005. However, pundits feared she would have no mandate to lead the country. Within a few short months, Merkel would prove them all wrong.

Almost immediately upon taking office, the new chancellor made her mark on the world stage. Merkel met with leaders from the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China, and took charge of the European Union summit meeting in December. For much of the previous year, the European Union had operated without a budget, largely because the British and the French spent more time trading insults than working together. Using her studious, analytical mind, Merkel listened carefully to the needs of all 25 member nations and quickly crafted a compromise that appealed to both Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac. By the end, the European Union had a budget. The only real moment of tension during the summit came when the delegates were served cold cod soup, a British staple. All eyes were on Jacques Chirac, but to the relief of everyone in the room, he consumed it without saying a word. Soon, Merkel was enjoying an 80 percent approval rating, the highest of any German chancellor since WWII.

During the past four years, Merkel's numbers haven't stayed quite that high, but she's had consistent support from the majority of her people. Germans respect her level-headed style. She supported the Iraq War (as a former resident of East Germany, she believes in ending despotism and protecting human rights), and then criticized President Bush for Guantánamo Bay (same reason). Her relationship with President Obama so far has been strained, mostly because they have fundamentally different philosophies on how to fix the global economic crisis. Obama believes Merkel hasn't done enough to promote stimulus spending in Germany, and Merkel believes Obama underestimates the risks involved with making the economy flush with cash. Her biggest fear is inflation, something Germans know plenty about. No one wants to return to pre-World War II Germany, but thanks to Angela Merkel, that's not really a concern.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine as part of Jenny Drapkin's look at "The 5 Gutsiest World Leaders."



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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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