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Heaven on Wheels: 7 Super Cool Popemobiles

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We’ve had a pope (sometimes two at once) for two millennia; we’ve had cars for a century. For most of popedom, the head of the Catholic church was carried around on a chair held aloft by twelve poles, one for each disciple. There was one man per pole, and they lifted the pope up above the thronging crowds, the better to see his pointy hat and waving hand. Once the automobile and its safety and usefulness had been proven, though, the Vatican was happy to accept cars as gifts. (For an exhaustive archive of the Pope’s transportation choices, consider The Washington Post’s illustrated history.)

Since the first Popemobile arrived on the scene, different pontiffs have exercised their personal vehicle preferences, trading in Mercedes-Benz limos for custom-built trucks, luxury SUVs, and armored vehicles.

Below are a few of the more interesting vehicles Pope Francis and his predecessors have waved from over the past century—not including the Ferrari Pope John Paul II had in the Vatican garage.

1. 1930 MERCEDES-BENZ 460 NURBURG EDITION

Courtesy of Motor Trend

When Mercedes-Benz gave Pope Pius XI a stretch 460 Nurburg edition car, those 12 pole-carrying guys were probably pretty relieved. Vatican insiders at the time simply called this Benz “the Rome vehicle,” as it was used as a kind of around-town car. It didn’t have any armor, though Mercedes made that option available in 1928. Like all the pope’s cars to come, this one carried the license plate “SCV-1,” for “status civitatus Vaticanae,” and the pope being Numero Uno. The Vatican kept this particular car for 30 years. The pope must have one hell of a mechanic.

Mercedes-Benz proudly proclaims that it has always been the official vehicle supplier of the Popes, but that’s only kind of true. When popes started jetting around the world in the mid-twentieth century, local manufacturers would kit out a car for them to use while in foreign countries.

2. 1964 LINCOLN CONTINENTAL LIMOUSINE

Courtesy of CatholicHotDish

Pope Paul VI was the first pope to visit the United States, in 1964, and he was given a fat Lincoln Continental limousine to use for his tour. It was customized by Lehmann-Peterson with platforms for security officers along the sides, an open roof, and a little 10-inch windshield above the usual windshield to keep the breeze from blowing off the pontiff’s beanie. Since a limousine wouldn’t fit in the overhead bins, Pope Paul didn’t take the car home as a souvenir. Instead, it remained Stateside and would be used by returning American astronauts and in Chicago as a parade car for dignitaries.

3. 1979 FORD CUSTOM: THE FIRST "POPEMOBILE"

Courtesy of World Irish

The first car known popularly as the Popemobile debuted in Dublin, Ireland, in 1979. A Ford truck was completely customized to hold the waving Pope John Paul II above the crowds, much the same way the twelve men with poles carried the old popes out to see the masses. The truck has what looks like a greenhouse, which held the throne and was big enough to house a little papal entourage, too. There was also an open-air platform for standing and being beneficent. Sound good to you? You’re in luck! This repainted Popemobile can be yours for £300 a night, courtesy of its current owners at the Dublin Wax Museum.

4. 1982 CUSTOM LAND ROVERS (AND AN ILL-FATED FIAT)

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Popemobiles made a big change after John Paul II was shot four times—not fatally—in 1981. On his tour of the United Kingdom in 1982, he used two fully armored, bomb-proof, four-wheel-drive Land Rovers to get around. They also had the greenhouse and throne in back for visibility and waving, but the pope’s advisors put the kibosh on the outdoor platform. (By the way, when John Paul II was shot, he was riding in a jeep-like modified Fiat Campaignola. Benedict XVI used it even as late as 2012 to get around the Vatican.)

5. 2002 MERCEDES-BENZ G-CLASS SUV

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In 2002, Pope John Paul II traded up for a more hip Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen in his signature papal Mystic White. In keeping with his new, cool image, he also asked that people stop calling his modified cars with thrones “Popemobiles.” The throne itself is white with the Vatican’s coat of arms embroidered in the upholstery. The Pope may be infallible and the Vicar of Christ on Earth, but the word “Popemobile” is here to stay.

6. 2013 MERCEDES-BENZ M-CLASS SUV

Courtesy of CarAdvice

In early 2013—that's just before Pope Benedict XVI announced his retirement—the Vatican unveiled a new version of the Popemobile. The Mercedes-Benz M-Class boasted soft halogen lighting over the throne and a motorized lift in the greenhouse to raise the pope up even further for better visibility. This M-Class was made shorter, too, making it easier to bring along on a plane.

7. 2015 CUSTOM JEEP WRANGLER

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Pope Francis has chosen to eschew the high-security Popemobiles used by his predecessors, likening the bulletproof cars to sardine cans. When he visited Ecuador in July 2015, he traveled in a custom-built, unarmored Jeep. When he landed in the U.S. this week, he again opted for something not too ostentatious. He rode from the airport in a diminutive Fiat 500L, and during his procession around D.C.’s National Mall, he waved to crowds from his retrofitted Jeep Wrangler.

A version of this post originally appeared in 2013.

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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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May 23, 2017
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