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7 Priceless Items People Sold on eBay

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Since it was founded in 1995, more than 3 billion items have been sold through eBay. The online auction site represents capitalism at its weirdest; among the items sold are some of the oddest products man has ever conceived. But once in a blue moon, something truly invaluable will find itself being bid on at the world’s largest garage sale. Here are some of the most jaw-dropping examples.

1. One of Albert Einstein’s Handwritten Letters

Starting Price: $3 million
Sold For: $3,000,100

In 1954, the great physicist penned a candidly-worded letter to Jewish philosopher Erik Gutkind in which he defended his views on ethics, religion, and human nature. Nearly six decades later, it caused a minor media sensation by showing up on eBay.

2. The Original “HOLLYWOOD” Sign

Starting Price: $300,000
Sold For: $450,400

“I hope the winning bidder has exciting plans for it,” said the sign’s previous owner, Dan Bliss. Built in 1923 as a real-estate gimmick, the maiden set of oversized “Hollywood” letters overlooked Los Angeles until it was replaced by a newer group in 1978. The former landmark finally found a new home after being auctioned off in 2005.

3. A Chunk of Mars

Starting Price: $450,000
Sold For: $450,000

What’s a Martian meteorite, you ask? It’s a piece of rock that was formed on the Red Planet, knocked into space by an asteroid or comet impact, that somehow managed to crash-land on Earth. As one can imagine, the odds against this happening are, well, astronomical! In fact, of the over 60,000 meteorite specimens known to science, only 132 hail from Mars. A fragment from one of these was auctioned away in 2003.

4. A New Species of Sea Urchin

Starting Price: $9.50
Sold For: $138.00

Draped in warm hues of cream and purple, the Coelopleurus exquisitus urchin is a dazzling animal. But incredibly, marine biologists didn’t discover it by exploring the open sea. Instead, they found it on eBay. Simon Coppard of the Natural History museum in London, along with a colleague, determined that a specimen being sold there by one collector did, in fact, hail from a species previously unknown to science.

5. The Tuscan Village of Pratariccia

Starting Price: $5 Million
Sold For: $3.1 Million

Located 22 miles east of Florence, Pratariccia boasts some 25 homes spread over twenty acres of land. The owners of Pratariccia’s real estate had, according to the mayor of a neighboring town, “tried and failed to sell the village through agencies for years but … got a lot of attention by putting it on eBay.” While this new tactic eventually paid off, they ultimately received $1.9 million less than their original asking price.

6. The Town of Bridgeville, CA

Starting Price: $750,000.00 (at first).
Status: Sold—twice!

“You get an entire working town,” proclaimed a 2002 post, “with shops, woodworking, plumbing, gas, and electrical... With the proper development, Bridgeville can become an economic powerhouse with the potential for generating a large cash flow.” The highest bidder would even acquire his/her very own zip code: 95526. An anonymous businessman emerged victorious by laying down an impressive $1.77 million, but backed out of the deal upon actually visiting some of Bridgeville’s desolate shacks. Nevertheless, the town did find a new buyer that year, who proceeded to turn around and re-sell it on eBay in 2006—this time for $1.25 million. Since then, it has changed hands yet again (without eBay’s help).

7. The Meaning of Life

Starting Price: $0.01
Sold For: $3.26

A mystical North Carolinian decided to give Monty Python a run for its money back in 2000. “I have discovered the reason for existence,” he wrote, “and will be happy to share this information with the highest bidder.” Since then, neither the buyer nor seller has gone public with the contents of his revelation.

BONUS: A Long-Lost Statue from Ancient Greece

Starting Price: $500,000.00
Status: NOT SOLD.

Imagine finding a half-ton, anatomically-correct sculpture sitting on your doorstep. While snorkeling near Gaza, Palestinian fisherman Jwdat Abu Ghrb spotted a strange object embedded in the ocean floor. It turned out to be a 2500-year-old statue depicting the Greek God Apollo. And—unsurprisingly—its lack of garments left nothing to the imagination, which didn’t sit well with Ghrb’s stunned mother when he brought his discovery home. Local authorities quickly seized the find. Shortly thereafter, it was offered up for sale on eBay (posed over a “Smurfs-themed beach towel”) before being taken down at the request of some distraught archaeologists.

All images courtesy of Getty Images unless otherwise noted.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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