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GSAAuctions.gov

16 Unusual Items For Sale on the Government’s Version of eBay

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GSAAuctions.gov

There’s a place on the Internet that sells real estate, office furniture, biomedical equipment, scrap metal, airplanes, slide projectors, and more to the highest bidder. It's not eBay, but GSA Auctions, or the government’s version of an online auction market. The U.S. General Services Administration (which declares its mission to be providing “the best value in real estate, acquisition and technology services to the government and the American people” in order to make a better, faster, more sustainable government) runs the site as a means of selling off surplus or forfeited federal assets to the general public. These might include the contents of an office in the process of relocation, or dozens of wedding gowns seized in relation to a drug trafficking case.

Due to the nature of their origins, the range of items available on the site at any given time can range from practical to downright strange. Here are but a few examples.

1. 152-PASSENGER BOAT.

GSAAuctions.gov

New Yorkers looking to invest in aquatic transportation might consider skipping the boat shows and instead go bargain-hunting among the government’s gently (well, maybe not quite) used vehicles, paying particular attention to the fine passenger vessel docked at Ellis Island by the National Parks Service. The 75-foot, Coast Guard-inspected boat has both a passenger cabin and outdoor seating on its upper deck, a standalone pilot house, and crew quarters below the deck—which is all together enough space to transport 149 passengers and three crew members. Despite some rust on the hull, its interior still looks clean and hospitable.

With a starting bid of $5000, it sounds like a great deal for a seaworthy vessel, so what’s the catch? There are a few: main engines with a tendency to overheat and coolant that leaks; non-functioning heating, ventilation, and air conditioning; substandard steering; broken generator; incomplete safety equipment; and oh, that Coast Guard certification expired a while ago. It’s a fixer-upper, to say the least. On the bright side, there are no known asbestos materials on board.

2. BROKEN AIRPLANE.

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Many of the items listed for auction on the site come in various states of disrepair, marked “scrap” in their titles and descriptions. This Fairchild C119C fixed wing aircraft, the bidding for which started at $1000, has “major components missing,” “is not in operating condition,” and “is unstable to tow”—and yet someone, somewhere has placed a bid on it for $1100. After all, one man’s trash…

3. USED DENTAL CHAIR.

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Someone’s got to have some use for it.

4. MISCELLANEOUS GEMSTONE.

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It seems reasonable enough to try to make some money back for the government from a loose diamond, 3.9 millimeters in size with a weight of 0.23 carats in a round brilliant cut. However, bundled with it is an 8 mm “round foil backed, colorless imitation ‘gemstone,’” which seems like an odd freebie to throw in there.

5. TYPEWRITER AND DVD PLAYER.

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Somewhere in Columbia, Missouri, a state government agency finally cleaned out its attic and is trying to get rid of some clutter.

6. GAS CHROMATOGRAPH.

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It’s tough to get research grants, especially for expensive lab equipment, so there’s no shame in scientists shopping around for the best prices on everything from Erlenmeyer flasks to gas chromatographs. This Hewlett Packard model on the GSA Auctions site needs a few parts replaced, but at under $4000, it boasts a huge discount off the same model being sold for around $16,000 on eBay.

7. GUCCI WATCH.

GSAAuctions.gov

GSA Auctions offers a tab dedicated to Jewelry & Exotic Collectibles. It’s a category less populated than Industrial Materials or even Construction Materials, but a savvy bidder might come across a potential treasure once in a while. At the moment, the only active listing in the category is a stainless steel, rectangular-faced Gucci wristwatch with white analog clock markings and an unknown provenance. Why does the federal government have a secondhand designer wristwatch for sale? The buyer might never really know.

8. CARPET SQUARES, EST. 12 BOXES.

GSAAuctions.gov

Looking to cheaply redecorate your home or office? Look no further. This lot is described as an estimated 12 boxes of blue/gray carpet squares measuring 24 inches by 24 inches, and…that’s it. That’s all the information provided.

9. 3130 POUNDS OF SCRAP CABLE WIRE.

GSAAuctions.gov

NASA’s Johnson Space Center has a lot of scrap cable wire to get rid of, but any prospective buyers will have to jump through a few more hurdles than they would with most sellers. The lot is only available for sale to U.S. citizens, who will have to provide a notarized declaration of their citizenship in order to make an appointment for pickup, as well as showing a U.S. passport or two forms of acceptable federal identification upon arriving at the property.

10. STEP AEROBICS SYSTEM.

GSAAuctions.gov

A month after the customary new year fitness resolutions, it looks like even government agencies are giving up on their commitment to exercise, or at least their commitment to a mixed lot of dusty step aerobics equipment that probably dates all the way back to the ‘90s. The listing consists of 104 pieces in all—more than enough to start a fitness class in 1992 (leotards not included).

11. POLYGRAPH CHAIR.

GSAAuctions.gov

Among the dozens of listings peddling miscellaneous sets of office furniture—purple upholstered lounge chairs, wooden desks, five-shelf bookcases, etc.—one stands out as a bit less likely to be repurposed in a doctor’s or lawyer’s office. With wide plastic armrests designed to keep the seated party’s arms in place while hooked up to a polygraph machine, perhaps the chair, with its flat surfaces on either side, could find new life as a place to keep snacks and drinks close at hand while watching TV.

12. FIVE ACRES OF CALIFORNIA MOUNTAIN LAND.

GSAAuctions.gov

There’s a small parcel of “unimproved” land in Tehachapi, California that the government isn’t doing anything with at the moment, and it’s available to any prospective bidders at a starting price of just a quarter million dollars. The pictures may not provide a comprehensive impression of the area, but the listing points out that the land off Barstow Bakersfield Highway is vacant and thus “can be viewed by the public at any time.” Always try before you buy.

13. AN ENTIRE NORTH CAROLINA APARTMENT COMMUNITY.

GSAAuctions.gov

More ambitious investors with a few million dollars to spare might be interested in the Coastal Park area of Elizabeth City, North Carolina, all of which is for sale. The property consists of 82 housing units, several basketball courts, a tennis court, a playground, a gazebo, “and plenty of space for a number of recreational activities.” However, the whole place is covered in lead-based paint, so that might be a minor concern.

14. 2280 SCREWDRIVERS.

GSAAuctions.gov

Every good toolbox needs at least one screwdriver with interchangeable tips, and even the most barebones hardware store should keep a selection in stock. However, if the nearest Home Depot doesn’t happen to have 2280 screwdrivers in their inventory, the GSA Auctions site just might be able to provide. All 2280 even come stored in a single, enormous wooden crate for easy(?) pickup.

15. 2011 FORD ESCAPE.

GSAAuctions.gov

Amidst the listings for various wrecked vehicles, GSA Auctions has for sale some perfectly road-worthy cars. With just over 10,000 miles and “no known deficiencies,” the 2011 Ford being sold by a USDA office in Kentucky seems like at least as good an option as leasing.

16. 46 FIRE EXTINGUISHERS.

GSAAuctions.gov

Buying in bulk is usually a great way to save money, but when it comes to safety equipment, a warning that fire extinguishers “appear new” but “some parts may be broken or missing, repairs may be required, sold as is” should probably cause the buyer to pause and think whether it’s really worth skimping on that part of the budget.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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