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5 More People Who Accidentally Found a Fortune

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We’ve all found something that we thought might be worth a lot of money. We have not all been fortunate enough to stumble across anything actually worth a fortune. Rob has shared some of these stories before, but here are a few more people who accidentally discovered something incredibly valuable.

1. A 500-Year-Old Pendant

Taking a three-year-old out to use a metal detector is mostly about showing the kiddo a device that beeps when you find a quarter or an old can. And to be fair, that’s really all Jason Hyatt expected to do when he took his son James on his very first expedition. Just minutes after getting started, the detector buzzed and the father-son duo started digging. About 8 inches under the surface, they discovered a gold locket with an image of the Virgin Mary clutching a cross.

The pendant is what’s known as a reliquary, and it dates back to the 16th century, during the reign of Henry VIII. Experts claim it may have even belonged to a member of the royal family. There are only three other reliquaries of this type known to exist.

As a bonus (sort of), James will learn a valuable lesson about sharing. Part of the reliquary's $4 million sale will go to the owner of the property where it was discovered.

2. A Vase Fit for the Emperor

When a pair of siblings set out to clean their deceased uncle’s home, they certainly weren’t expecting to become millionaires in the process. As they started packing up his things, they ran across a vase that seemed so worthless they stuck it up on a bookshelf and continued working on boxing up the rest of his items. Eventually their attention returned to the vase, and they realized it might be worth something, so they took it to an auctioneer who told them the piece was from the 1740s and was almost certainly created specifically for the Qianlong Emperor.


Naturally, the pair put the vase up for auction, where the piece ended up breaking the record for any Chinese artwork –closing at $69 million. Now that’s one heck of an unexpected inheritance.

3. A 260-Year-Old Violin

One evening in 1967, a woman thought she saw a baby on the side of the freeway, so she got out and investigated. Fortunately, it wasn't a baby, but a violin case with a pretty nice-looking violin inside. The woman kept the violin, eventually giving it to her nephew, who then lost it to his ex-wife, Theresa Salvato, during a divorce settlement. When Theresa decided to take violin lessons, her instructor thought there was something unusual about her instrument. He asked to borrow it, and then took it to a violin dealer who examined it and declared it to be the $800,000 violin that had been missing from UCLA’s collection since 1967.

Named "The Duke of Alcantara," the rare instrument was a Stradivarius that had been borrowed from the school’s collection by the school orchestra’s second violinist, David Margetts. David reported the violin stolen, but it turns out he likely put it on top of his car and forgot about it.

Salvato contacted the school, but refused to hand over the instrument after they sent two campus police officers to her home and accused her of theft. Eventually, the matter had to be settled in court, where Salvato was pronounced the rightful legal owner of the instrument. She then sold the violin back to the school for $11,500 — a fraction of its actual worth. Even so, it’s not too shabby for something found on the side of the freeway.

4. A Missing Mark Twain Manuscript

For years now, the second half of Mark Twain’s manuscript for Huck Finn has been treasured and cared for in the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library. But what about the first half? As it turns out, it’s been hidden away inside of a trunk in the attic of the very book collector that convinced Mark Twain to donate the book to the library in the first place. After Twain handed the manuscript over to James Fraser Gluck, the collector managed to lose the first half before giving it to the library.

Finally, over 100 years later, Gluck’s granddaughters discovered the manuscript and intended to put it on auction at Sotheby’s in New York. Before the auction date, an ownership claim arose after the library pointed out that Twain had promised the manuscript would go into their collection. Rather than making a legal battle out of the matter, the sisters decided to sell the manuscript to the library for an undisclosed, but reportedly low, six-digit sum. While it was far less than the piece would have earned at auction, the sisters claimed they agreed to sell it to the library as an act of charity.

5. A Lost Van Gogh Masterpiece

Sometimes valuable items can be hiding in plain sight. Just ask the unnamed middle-aged couple living in Milwaukee who happened to have an original van Gogh masterpiece hanging on their wall. They thought the painting was just a simple reproduction, but when they invited an art appraiser to take a look at another painting in their home, he noticed the van Gogh and realized it was the 1886 original. When “Still Life With Flowers” sold at auction, the couple quickly ended up $1.4 million richer.

So, any of you guys ever find an original van Gogh? How about something valuable but maybe not Stradivarius-level valuable? We've heard the Atari 2600 is worth a few bucks.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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