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5 Non-Gold Treasures Stored at Fort Knox

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Think Fort Knox is just for gold? Well, that’s a lot of bullion. Here are five more items that have been stored in the vault.

1. The Magna Carta

The Magna Carta has traveled the world, and one of its four known copies spent a long layover in Fort Knox during World War II. Its original American destination: the British Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. When World War II erupted a few months later, the document was sent to the vault for safekeeping. It was a Fort Knox life for the Magna Carta until 1947, when it was returned to Lincoln Cathedral.

2. The Constitution and 3. The Declaration of Independence

The Magna Carta wasn’t the only historical document hanging out among the gold bars during World War II. It was in good, American company—with the original Constitution and Declaration of Independence. The papers were moved from Washington, D.C. to Fort Knox two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. But don’t picture them in a museum display. They were kept under lock and key … and sealed with lead … and placed in another protective container. All told, the documents were kept safe by some 150 pounds of gear, not to mention the fact that they were in Fort Knox. They returned to D.C. in 1944.

4. The Holy Crown of Hungary

Sure, it’s made of gold, pearls, and other jewels. But back in the day, the Holy Crown of Hungary (also known as the Crown of Saint Stephen) was also thought to be divine. Hungarian King Coloman the Book Lover, who reigned from 1095 to 1116, wrote that the Holy Crown, not the king, was the true leader of the country. That’s a lot of power for a piece of bling!

Important as it is, the Holy Crown’s been stolen, lost, and found throughout history. At the end of World War II in 1945, the U.S. 86th Infantry Division recovered the crown in Mattsee, Austria. When it was returned to the Hungarian Crown Guard, the unit considered the threat of the Soviet Union. So guess what happened? Yep, the Holy Crown was sent to Fort Knox for the duration of the Cold War. It stayed there and got the royal security treatment until 1978.

5. Tons of Morphine and Opium

Among all the gold in Fort Knox is a cache of morphine and opium worth millions. And no, these were not recovered during the War on Drugs. Instead, they were stored back in 1955 in preparation for the Cold War. The U.S. military wanted to be sure to have enough emergency painkillers in the event that our access to foreign opium sources was cut off. The tricky part: what to do with all these drugs we don't need anymore. Selling all the remaining morphine could've depressed the domestic market, so the U.S. spent millions refining the old opium into morphine sulphate in 1993. It's still locked up, just like you'd be if you got caught with that many drugs.

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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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