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Why Does Muammar Qaddafi Own a Mansion in New Jersey?

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As General Muammar Qaddafi continues to evade the Libyan rebels who chased him out of Tripoli last week, there has been some tongue-in-cheek speculation about the possibility of him fleeing all the way to his five-acre estate in—wait for it—Englewood, New Jersey.

Almost thirty years ago, in 1982, the Libyan government paid a million bucks for this three-story, 10,000 square foot, 25-bedroom mansion, which they inexplicably named “Thunder Rock,” on Palisade Avenue in Englewood, a suburb in Bergen County. It’s a bizarre choice of neighborhood for a government that has made a habit of bankrolling terrorists and talking about how much they hate Israel, considering it’s right smack in the middle of a sizeable Orthodox Jewish community. In fact, Thunder Rock is directly next door to the largest yeshiva in town, and just a short walk from the home of one Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who, if in case you missed that episode of Oprah, is an outspoken leader in the American Jewish community and a former spiritual mentor to Michael Jackson.

Who’s up for a block party?

Thunder Rock was originally purchased as a summer retreat for the Libyan ambassador to the U.S. and his or her family, but it was never really used, and in the last decade or so, the now multi-million dollar pad had mostly wallowed in obscurity, with a few notable exceptions. In 1985, it was the subject of a prolonged legal battle, which ended with the court decision that the Libyan government would not have to pay property taxes on the place.

It was a decision that rankled New Jerseyans, especially when, twenty-four years later, in 2009, Qaddafi proposed setting up his air-conditioned Bedouin tent—he always travels with one—on the mansion’s front lawn. The little camping trip would, the Englewood mayor predicted, cost residents an estimated $20,000 per day in police presence and garbage removal.

It wasn’t only the cost that got the Garden State protesting: A few months before the announced visit, Qaddafi had given a hero’s welcome to Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi after he was released from prison to Libya on humanitarian grounds. Al-Megrahi was convicted of bombing a jetliner over Scotland in 1988, killing 270 people—38 of whom, the protesters were quick to point out, were from New Jersey.

It’s not likely New Jersey residents would stand for Qaddafi’s ignoble return, but on the off chance that he does make a break for Thunder Rock, here’s hoping for a cameo on Jersey Shore, where he and Snooki show up wearing the same outfit.

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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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