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The Time a Salvador Dali Painting Was Stolen From Rikers Island

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getty images

On February 26, 1965, Salvador Dali awoke feeling feverish. With the temperature outside the window of his New York City hotel plummeting and the wind howling, he canceled a big item on the day’s agenda: a visit to Rikers Island. Neither he, his wife Gala, or his pet ocelot Babou, who traveled with him everywhere, would take the boat to the prison complex in the East River, where Dali was scheduled to give an art lesson to inmates. 

But Dali didn’t want to disappoint. Still clad in his pajamas, he summoned his associate Nico Yperifanos, who had organized the visit, and dictated a message: Dali wouldn’t make it to Rikers, but his art would. Brush in hand, Dali set about creating a surrealist interpretation of Jesus’ crucifixion—a monstrous black blob wearing a crown of thorns, atop inky red-and-black splatters all set against a pale cross. Scrawled at the bottom of the four-by-five feet painting were the words: “For the dinning room of the prisoners Rikers Island S.D.” (Dali was never big on proper spelling.)

A picture from the time shows Yperifanos presenting the painting to a stern, and perhaps slightly befuddled-looking, Corrections Commissioner named Anna Kross. According to accounts later reported in the Los Angeles Times, Yperifanos delivered the painting with rousing words from Dali to the inmates: "He'd like to give a message to the prisoners that you are artists. Don't think your life is finished for you. With art, you have to always feel free.” 

Officials hung the painting in the cafeteria of the Correctional Institution for Men, near trash cans where inmates disposed of their leftovers. Over time, it racked up both ketchup stains and doubts about its provenance. When a warden named Alexander Jenkins took over in 1981, he was skeptical about whether Dali was truly the painting’s creator, telling one reporter, "There weren't any records on the painting, and for all I know it could have been an inmate's copy of a Dali.” 

The blob-of-thorns was taken down from its spot atop the trash cans and locked away, while a thick file of bureaucratic correspondence built up. Officials debated the best course of action—should the painting be cleaned, sold, or duplicated in prints to raise money for the prison? Finally, in the late 1980s, officials decided to re-hang the work (alongside a plaque authenticating it) in a new location, near the prison’s main entrance, between a soda fountain and pay phones. This time, it would be far from prisoners, kept behind locked doors about 100 feet away. 

In the end, the inmates weren’t a danger to the art—the guards were. In early March 2003, staff noticed that the painting looked different: smaller, missing its mahogany-and-gold frame, and somehow transformed from the work of a master artist to the product of a child “with no artistic talent.” The staff called the police, and suspicion soon fell on prison officers—after all, not many people knew of the painting’s existence, and the fake didn’t exactly look like the work of a professional art thief. 

According to court documents, the theft was hatched in the Rikers bodega—a store inside the massive complex (Rikers also has its own schools, ball fields, barbershops, bakery, laundromat, print shop, and car wash). Two assistant deputy wardens—one of whom had access to the key for the painting's plexiglass display case—and two officers believed they could sell the painting for $1 million, and planned to split the proceeds. 

There was just one problem: The painting was in full view of two 24-hour guard stations. To provide a distraction, one of the assistant deputy wardens would trigger a false fire alarm, during which all prison staff were required to meet at a staging area a mile away. The plan was for the thieves to hang back, with one unlocking the case, removing the Dali and stapling the fake in its place, while another smuggled the real Dali to his car and then to a storage space rented on the Internet under a fake name. After one aborted attempt, the thieves pulled off the caper successfully around midnight on March 1, 2003. It was a perfect crime—or so they thought. 

But once the crude fake triggered staff concern, the men started sweating. One of the officers, Greg Sokol, turned himself in and began co-operating with investigators, secretly recording conversations with the other men. Another officer, Timothy Pina, also co-operated with police and taped his co-conspirators. By June 2003, the four men had been dismissed from the Corrections Department and charged with grand larceny. Initially, all four denied the charges, but Sokol, Pina, and an assistant deputy warden named Mitchell Hochhauser later pled guilty. Hochhauser was sentenced to three years in prison, Pina was sentenced to 5 years probation, and Sokol was sentenced to three years probation and fined $1000. Another assistant deputy warden, Benny Nuzzo, was acquitted of charges that he had masterminded the theft

The painting has never been recovered. Hochhauser told prosecutors that Nuzzo had said he destroyed the art in a fit of panic not long after stealing it. As a spokesman for then-mayor Bloomberg put it around the time of the theft, “Who knew that it might have been safer left in the cafeteria?" 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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