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The First Thanksgiving Didn't Actually Take Place in America

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Daven Hiskey runs the wildly popular interesting fact website Today I Found Out. To subscribe to his “Daily Knowledge” newsletter, click here.

Despite what you might have learned in school, the Pilgrims did not celebrate the first Thanksgiving in America. In fact, the particular Pilgrim event that is often cited as the first Thanksgiving ever wasn’t even the Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving—they had several before then, at various times, and none of them were an annual occurrence.

Thanks A Million

Around the time the Pilgrims came to America in 1620, it was common in England and many parts of Europe to frequently set aside days for giving thanks to God. In the New World, where life was harsh in the beginning, there were numerous opportunities to hold such days of thanks: when a particularly good crop would come in; any time a drought ended; when villagers survived a particularly harsh winter; or whenever a supply ship arrived safely from Europe. This practice actually remained fairly common up until the time Thanksgiving became a national holiday in 1863. Most of these celebrations bore little resemblance to what we think of as Thanksgiving. Indeed, even the particular Thanksgiving day that the Pilgrims celebrated in the fall of 1621 bore little resemblance to what is depicted now.

So who actually celebrated the first Thanksgiving in America? Nobody knows for sure. There are three popular examples that are often referenced as the actual “firsts,” and pre-date the Pilgrims' celebration. On September 8, 1565, explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilé and a group of Spaniards celebrated a day of thanksgiving in Saint Augustine, Florida. Menéndez de Avilé even invited the Timucua tribe to dine with them on that Thanksgiving. In 1598, Spanish explorer Juan de Onate and his crew held a thanksgiving festival on the banks of the Rio Grande after they had successfully crossed over 350 miles of Mexican desert. And On December 4th, 1619, 38 settlers on a ship called the Margaret landed about 20 miles from Jamestown. Their charter required that the day of landing be set aside as a day of thanksgiving both on that first date and every year after. This tradition died out due to the Indian Massacre of 1622, where many of the settlers were killed and most of the rest fled to Jamestown.


So why is the fall 1621 Pilgrim Thanksgiving often considered the very first Thanksgiving? This is largely thanks to Sarah Josepha Hale, one of the most influential women in American history (one of her most famous works is the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb," which was published in 1830). She was enamored with the Pilgrim event that she had read about in a passage by William Bradford in Of Plymouth Plantation, and loved the Thanksgiving tradition, which was somewhat common in New England at the time. She tirelessly campaigned for over 20 years to have Thanksgiving become a national holiday with a set date and was ultimately successful. (Prior to that, states celebrated Thanksgiving when they wished, usually between October and January.)

Her highly circulated editorials are why we view the Pilgrim’s 1621 Thanksgiving as the first. She also gets credit for many of the traditions we now tend to attribute to that Thanksgiving, even though there are actually only two brief passages that record what happened during the Thanksgiving celebration in the fall of 1621. For example, things like the tradition of eating turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving were all popularized by Hale; it is extremely unlikely that the Pilgrims actually ate any of those things.

Check out more interesting articles from Daven over at Today I Found Out and subscribe to his Daily Knowledge newsletter here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]