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"Death and the Civil War" - Tonight on PBS

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Tonight on the PBS series American Experience, Ric Burns brings us Death and the Civil War, a bleak and wrenching documentary about the 750,000 people who died in the American Civil War. "Never before and never since have so many Americans died in any war, by any measure or reckoning," the narrator says, then Drew Gilpin Faust explains that in today's population that would mean 7 million dead. "What would we as a nation today be like, if we faced the loss of 7 million individuals?" Faust asks. This is a documentary about a nation learning what death on a terrible scale means -- what it means to die, what our wishes are after we die, how we bury our dead, what our responsibilities are to our veterans (and enemy veterans) who die, and also what our responsibility is to our veterans who live. It is an utterly devastating film, and you should watch it. Here's the trailer:

Watch Death and the Civil War Extended Promo on PBS. See more from American Experience.

The results of the Civil War included national cemeteries, policies about notifying next-of-kin, and state-level veterans' homes (which eventually led to the VA system we know today). Prior to that war, none of these existed in the United States -- and this documentary explores how we collectively came to understand how and why we honor the dead who serve our country.

The Civil War By the Numbers

Here's a snippet from American Experience's Civil War By the Numbers page:

From 1861 to 1865, the Civil War ravaged America. It still holds several notorious records, such as the highest number of average deaths per day (504). Read more of the shocking statistics from the War that divided our nation.

  • 4:1               The ratio of people who attended church weekly to those who voted in the 1860 election
  • 2.5               Approximate percentage of the American population that died in the Civil War
  • 7 mil           Number of Americans lost if 2.5% of the population died in war today
  • 2.1 mil        Number of Northerners mobilized to fight for the Union army
  • 880,000    Number of Southerners mobilized for the Confederacy
  • 50                Estimated percentage of Civil War deaths that occurred in the last two years of the War
  • 40+             Estimated percentage of Civil War dead who were never identified
  • 66                Estimated percentage of dead African American Union soldiers who were never identified
  • 2 out of 3   Number of Civil War deaths that occurred from disease rather than battle
  • 68,162        Number of inquiries answered by the Missing Soldiers Office from 1865-1868

The Gettysburg Address, Examined

The battle of Gettysburg incurred death on a scale that we can hardly imagine. With an estimated 51,000 casualties and 7,786 dead, the scale of carnage overwhelmed the town of Gettysburg, which itself only had 24,000 residents. There was simply no way the people there could properly care for the wounded and dead. As the film's narrator explains: "In three days, Union and Confederate forces had suffered almost as many casualties as in all previous American wars combined." Add to that, 3,000 dead horses lay dead on the battlefield. The task of burying the dead fell to Union soldiers and the townspeople, who faced the unimaginably grim work of burying these people in the summer heat. This is when the North truly felt the impact of the war, as this terrible battle literally brought death home. The stench of decay was so powerful and pervasive that when frost came, months after the battle, townspeople were still smearing peppermint oil on their faces to mask the odor. Let me say that again: the battle ran from July 1-3; people could still smell the carnage when the ground froze.

The most powerful part of Death and the Civil War is its treatment of Gettysburg and the Gettysburg Address. The film offers so much context for that speech, it's hard to imagine discussing the speech lacking this specific understanding of what was going on around Lincoln as he spoke. Imagine that you lived in Gettysburg, and you had to bury your country's dead in mass graves, and you had to live with that experience for months. Imagine then that a massive new cemetery, one of the first national cemeteries, had been constructed just south of town, and it was so large that it became a primary feature of your local landscape; the government paid to re-bury Union soldiers in that new cemetery at a rate of $1.59 per body. And then imagine that your president arrives in November, with the stench of death still in the air, and speaks -- he dedicates that Soldiers' National Cemetery (now Gettysburg National Cemetery), but also speaks to the larger responsibilities of the nation to its dead. He speaks in a cemetery where half of the coffins haven't even been buried yet. And this is what he says:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain--that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom--and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Here's the first 11 minutes of the film. This gives you a clear idea of what it's like.

Watch Death and the Civil War, Chapter 1 on PBS. See more from American Experience.

And here's Executive Producer Mark Samels discussing how the documentary came about:

Watch Why we made Death & the Civil War on PBS. See more from American Experience.

The film airs on PBS stations tonight, September 18, at 8pm/7pm Central (check your local listings to be sure -- the program is American Experience and lasts two hours). If you miss the broadcast, the film will be available online on iTunes. The film is inspired by Drew Gilpin Faust's This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, and Faust appears in the film, framing the war and how it changed America's relationship with death.

Blogger disclosure: I was not specially compensated for this review. I requested a screener after seeing Ric Burns's New York: A Documentary, and found this film to be even more powerful.

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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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May 23, 2017
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