CLOSE
Original image
Getty Images

Isaac Newton: 17th-Century London’s Dirty Harry

Original image
Getty Images

The science titan wasn’t used to being outsmarted. But after two years of trying to shut down English counterfeiting, one underworld kingpin was still getting the better of him.

Back in 1695, England’s Royal Mint discovered a serious problem: A massive portion of the circulating currency was phony. As counterfeiting methods grew increasingly clever, the Mint turned to England’s brightest mind for a solution. Isaac Newton was appointed Warden of the Mint, a one-man army who waded through London’s underbelly to restore the currency’s integrity. Most counterfeiters were easy prey for Newton, but William Chaloner, a shadowy kingpin, kept eluding his grasp.

Chaloner had trained as a nail maker’s apprentice, but he found a more lucrative application for molten metals: coining 30,000 guineas. The counterfeiter’s self-made wealth enabled him to pose as a gentleman and gave him an ego to match his intellect.

Newton wanted nothing more than to destroy Chaloner, and the feeling was mutual.

Chaloner appeared before a parliamentary committee, where he insinuated that Newton was incompetent and blamed Mint employees for the epidemic of phony coins. Enraged, Newton intensified his efforts.

When Chaloner set up a coining facility in Egham, 20 miles outside of London, Newton sensed an opening. He began studying Chaloner’s sophisticated casting method—which involved pouring molten metal into brass molds before filing down the molds’ faces, resulting in much sharper images on the phony coins.

By September 1697, Newton had enough evidence to lock Chaloner up—but not for long. Working through intermediaries inside the prison and out, Chaloner bribed the prosecution’s star witness into fleeing to Scotland. Chaloner was released and accused Newton of framing an innocent man.

This attack on Newton’s integrity was the last straw. If Chaloner was going to play dirty, then so was Newton. Acting more the grizzled sheriff than an esteemed scientist, Newton bribed crooks for information. He started making threats. He leaned on the wives and mistresses of Chaloner’s crooked associates. In short, he became the Dirty Harry of 17th-century London.


After nearly two more years of relentless pursuit, Newton’s extreme measures had gathered enough evidence to put Chaloner away for good. This time, the charges stuck. On March 3, 1699, the counterfeiter was found guilty of high treason. The next day he was sentenced to hang. In the days before the execution, Chaloner wrote Newton a long, rambling letter proclaiming his innocence. The condemned counterfeiter begged his old rival for mercy, writing, “O dear Sir nobody can save me but you.”

Newton felt no pity. He snubbed his rival by not attending the hanging. As Newton had written during Chaloner’s first trial, the counterfeiter had formed “a confederacy against the Warden.” Chaloner could have lived a long, honest life had he “let the money & Government alone.”

With Chaloner dispatched, Newton torched the records of his investigation, likely to cover up the murky steps he took to help save the pound. In 1703, he gave up crime fighting and returned to academia as president of the Royal Society. England’s currency was once again safe from scoundrels like Chaloner, and criminals and thinkers alike had learned a valuable lesson: You don’t mess with Isaac Newton.

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Now go download our new iPad app! Or get a free issue of mental_floss magazine via mail.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
entertainment
arrow
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES