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The Personal Items 6 Famous Dictators Left Behind

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The recent Libyan uprising has resulted in many serious consequences for Muammar Qaddafi — including the revelation of the various tchotchkes found stashed away in his private compound. There’s a lesson to be had here – if you have some sort of keepsake(s) that you’d rather the rest of the world not know about, then you’d better destroy them now, or at the very least never become a despotic dictator. No matter how innocent the hobby or fetish, it might reflect badly on your image as a Supreme Political Tyrant after you’re deposed. Here are a few of the more unusual items that some of history’s most hard-nosed rulers kept near and dear:

1. It’s Only a Schoolboy Crush

When Libyan rebels ransacked Qaddafi's private compound, they stumbled upon a photo album filled with pictures of former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Turns out the “Brother Leader” had a teenaged fan-boy crush on “my darling black African woman” who “leans back and gives orders to the Arab leaders.” When Rice visited Tripoli in 2008, Qaddafi plied her with gifts, including a diamond ring, a lute, and a locket with his picture tucked inside.

2. Awed by an Egyptian

Adolf Hitler was another tyrant who was fascinated by African beauty. One of his prized possessions was a limestone bust of an Amarna Period portrait of Queen Nefertiti, which had been smuggled out of Egypt by German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt in 1913. The bust was loaned to the Berlin Museum along with other artifacts of the Amarna dig, but it was never put on display at the request of Borchardt. When Germany’s museums were closed in 1939, Hitler had the bust moved to one of his bunkers in Berlin, stating, “Nefertiti continually delights me. The bust is a unique masterpiece, an ornament, a true treasure!" He also proclaimed that when Berlin re-emerged as Germania he would “build a chamber, crowned by a large dome. In the middle, this wonder, Nefertiti, will be enthroned. I will never relinquish the head of the Queen."

Hitler had also planned to have a bust of his own mug made to be placed next to the Egyptian queen in his pleasure dome, but his plans came to a screeching halt when World War II didn’t end exactly as he’d envisioned.

3. When Papa Plays the Accordion

When a person admits to having tasted human flesh and allegedly kept the severed heads of his rivals in the palace freezer, it’s really hard to find any sort of “wacky” item in his personal collection. Unless, of course, it’s something that seems totally contradictory to said dictator’s public image. In this case we’re talking about Idi Amin, better known as the Butcher of Uganda, and his love of the accordion.

“Dada” absolutely loved accordion music and considered himself something of a virtuoso on the instrument. In fact, part of his agreement to participate in Barbet Schroeder’s 1974 documentary General Idi Amin Dada was that he would provide the accompanying musical score via his cherished accordion. How adept was he? Very much so, according to those closest to him, and that’s not because they felt obligated to say so, honest….

4. Put a Chain Around My Neck and Lead Me Anywhere

Nicolae Ceausescu’s 1,100 room palace was filled with lavish gifts and knick-knacks from foreign dignitaries who were for some reason anxious to court the Romanian dictator. But one large wing was filled with Ceausescu’s personal “trophies” – the hides of the nearly 4,000 bears he’d killed during his 25 year reign. Nicu was big on blood sports, and the brown bears of the Carpathian Mountains were his favorite target.


Oppressing a population is time-consuming work, though, so Ceausescu had to go about his hunting as expeditiously as possible. He’d fly via helicopter to one of the many “game management units” dotting Romania, where keepers nurtured nearly tame herds by putting out supplemental fruit and horsemeat for the bears at feeding stations. If Nicu was in a particular hurry, the keepers would slip their bears some food laced with ursine roofies and then herd the sluggish animals past Ceausescu’s raised hunting platform so that he could pick them off en masse, cubs and sows included. One afternoon he managed to bag 24 bruins in a matter of hours.

Perhaps it was a small slice of poetic justice that the topcoat that Ceausescu happened to be wearing when he was executed by a firing squad in 1989 was lined with bearskin.

5. Green Tea in Bed

China’s Chairman Mao Zedong’s Imperial Palace was filled with many luxuries only dreamed of by the average Chinese (including an indoor swimming pool and several tennis courts), but another staple was something that even the upper-middle-class American would envy – a large round bed with a feather-stuffed mattress. Mao enjoyed the company of many young women at one time and nothing less than a feathery nest would suffice for the Chairman’s erotic encounters. He even had such a bed installed in the Palace’s grand ballroom, apparently for those urgent quickies that arose during State occasions.

One item that was not to be found among Zedong’s belongings was a toothbrush; the Chairman was very much anti-dental hygiene and simply rubbed green tea leaves on his rotting choppers when the pain of inflammation grew unbearable.

6. You’ve Gotta Have Art

A common trait among dictators is the need to present an impressive, educated, epicurean persona to their people and the world. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein fancied himself a connoisseur of fine art and sublime libations, yet his bunker was decorated with an array of black velvet paintings and his wine cellar stockpiled with Mateus Rosé (not exactly Boone’s Farm, but a far cry from Château d'Yquem).

And then there were the murals that adorned the walls of his hideaway…for example, a nude Adonis-type male wrestling an enormous viper while a bare-breasted female looks on. The man who had a cleanliness fetish and had solid gold fixtures in his multitude of palace bathrooms was ultimately seized by U.S. forces in a tiny spider hole in which the only accoutrements were a fluorescent light and a ventilation fan.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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