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The Time Abe Lincoln and a Rival Almost Dueled

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On September 22, 1842, the Mississippi River levee in Alton, Illinois, was crammed full of spectators awaiting the results of a highly anticipated duel -- a smackdown between Abraham Lincoln and political rival James Shields. Only one man could emerge victorious. Onlookers held their breath in suspense as they spotted a boat approaching with a blood-soaked body draped over the bow.

It had all started where so many skirmishes do: the Illinois state legislature. Though at the time Lincoln was a Whig and Shields was a Democrat, the two politicians had an amicable relationship and worked together to address the state’s enormous debt problem.

The relationship cooled, however, when Shields became the State Auditor. He passed a number of controversial measures and even instituted a policy whereby the state stopped accepting its own paper money as payment of taxes and other debts.

Lincoln expressed his disapproval in the most professional, statesman-like fashion he could think of: by anonymously lampooning Shields in print. He began composing letters to a Springfield paper deriding Shields' character as well as his policies.

Poking fun at Shields wasn’t hard to do. He was notoriously pompous, vain, and a tad eccentric. Opponents dubbed him “an irresistible mark for satire.” Putting his infamously sarcastic wit to work, Lincoln created two fictitious characters -- Jeff and Rebecca -- who were unable to pay their debts because the state no longer accepted paper money.

He also poked fun at Shields' lack of romantic game. One letter, signed "Rebecca," quoted Shields as saying, “Dear girls, it is distressing, but I cannot marry you all . . . It is not my fault that I am so handsome and so interesting.”

Before sending his note off to the editor, Lincoln shared it with his soon-to-be-wife Mary Todd and her friend Julia Jayne. The two women contributed a few quips to Lincoln’s letter and even began writing memos of their own.

The letters soon became the talk of the town. Though Shields was generally well liked, people got a kick out of Lincoln’s hilariously spot-on satire. Shields, however, didn’t get the joke. Incensed, he contacted the paper’s editor and demanded to know “Rebecca’s” identity. The editor gave him Abe’s name – as per Lincoln’s instructions.

Upon learning the identity of his defamer, Shields decided to settle the matter by challenging Lincoln to a duel. Though Lincoln thought the whole thing was absurd, he knew that backing down from a duel was never the honorable thing to do.

Duel Rules

As the one who’d been challenged, Lincoln got to select the conditions of the duel. He had a grand old time conjuring up the most ridiculous set of circumstances possible. To begin with, he named the cavalry broadsword as the weapon of choice. (“I didn't want the d—-d fellow to kill me, which I think he would have done if we had selected pistols,” he later explained.)

Next, Lincoln decided that the duel should be held on an island across the Mississippi (dueling was illegal in Illinois). He also stipulated that the two men face off in the bottom of a 12-foot-deep pit divided by a wooden plank that neither man was allowed to cross.

These conditions gave the 6’4” Lincoln a serious advantage over his 5’9” opponent. Lincoln was sure Shields would back down.

Not the case.

On September 22, 1842, Shields arrived at the duel site near the city of Alton, ready to face any challenger who might be foolish enough to face him.

While the two men were gearing up to face off, one spectator noted how grave and serious Lincoln looked. “I’d never seen him look so long before making a joke, and began to believe he was getting frightened.” But all of a sudden, Lincoln reached up and casually sliced off a branch with his sword. Again, it was an effort to scare Shields into submission.

But his opponent’s impressive display of arm-span still didn’t deter the scrappy Shields. The duel was about to commence when a few mutual friends arrived and intervened. Colonel John Jay Hardin helped the two reach a face-saving compromise, working it out with words instead of swords. Lincoln offered up a mea culpa and admitted that he’d authored the letters.

Everyone standing on the levee was relieved (but probably a hair disappointed) to learn that the “body” on the boat returning from the island was really just a log in a red shirt – a simple prank set up by a mutual friend.

When the boat reached land, Lincoln and Shields stepped off together, chummily chatting away. Upon viewing spectators’ horrified reactions, they both broke into fits of laughter at how absurd the whole situation had been.

The two men buried the hatchet (or broadsword) and remained friends from then on. Lincoln wasn’t exactly proud that he’d almost dueled against a political opponent. In fact, he was pretty embarrassed. When an officer asked him about the event years later, he replied, “I do not deny it, but if you desire my friendship you will never mention it again.”

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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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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