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Debt Free Zone: How Liechtenstein Manages to Live Within Its Means

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As you may have heard, the United States’ gigantic national debt means we’re firmly in our creditors’ pockets. But what about countries on the opposite end of the spectrum? Who’s got the tiniest national debt? In that arena, it’s tough to beat Liechtenstein. The tiny European principality has a whopping external debt of zero dollars.

That’s right; Liechtenstein doesn’t owe anyone cash. Its national credit card is carrying a zero balance. Liechtenstein’s not alone. The CIA’s World Factbook also lists Brunei, Macau, and Palau as having no external debts. How do Liechtenstein and its fellow countries pull off this trick? And can the U.S. swipe any of their secrets?

As far as the second question goes, probably not. Liechtenstein has a lot of factors working in its favor when it comes to keeping its debt low. First, it’s extremely small. The entire country only fills 62 square miles of mountainous terrain between Switzerland and Austria. The tiny speck of land is home to just 35,000 citizens or so. With such a small population, the country hasn’t had a standing army since 1868; it relies on Switzerland for its defense. Liechtenstein doesn’t even have its own unique currency. Instead, it uses the Swiss franc.

Open for Business

Not having to deal with fielding an army or running a monetary system shaves quite a bit off of Liechtenstein’s expenses, but its business atmosphere is its real magic bullet.

The country has exceedingly low business taxes that max out at 20 percent, and the rules for incorporating a business are extremely loose. Thanks to this tax-haven status, businesses from other countries can make quite a bit of cash by incorporating in Liechtenstein while really having little more than a post-office box within the country’s borders.

This little loophole has led to Liechtenstein being home to more than twice as many companies (some 75,000) as people (35,000). The government collects taxes from all these businesses, which brings in boatloads of money. Taxes on these nominal offices generate upwards of 30 percent of the country’s tax revenue.

Image credit: Andrew Bossi, used under Creative Commons license

Liechtenstein’s unique financial arrangements haven’t always helped the principality make friends on the international stage. Other countries have accused Liechtenstein of being one big mountainous tax dodge. The principality was actually on the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s list of “uncooperative tax havens” until May 2009. Since then, Liechtenstein has actively been promoting greater financial transparency in its financial institutions.

On top of that, Liechtenstein’s small population props up a flourishing industrial sector. The country’s factories churn out ceramics and small power tools, and it’s a leading manufacturer of sausage casings. Liechtenstein is also the world’s leading exporter of false teeth.

Liechtenstein’s citizens couldn’t possibly buy all of this stuff, so the great bulk of the production is exported. In 2009 the country’s exports totaled $2.83 billion, while its imports were just $1.77 billion, mostly in raw materials and food.

As the CIA’s World Factbook also notes, 51 percent of Liechtenstein’s labor force commutes in from Austria, Switzerland, or Germany. This setup is another boon for the country, which gets to enjoy these workers’ labor without having to foot the bill for their day-to-day social program expenses.

Thanks to all these little quirks, Liechtenstein’s government runs at a significant surplus. In 2008 the government took in $943 million in revenue against just $820 million in expenses. It’s probably not a recipe that the United States could learn from, but it’s an excellent way to have no national debt.

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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]