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5 Things I Learned At the End of the Oregon Trail

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When my parents are in town (Portland, Oregon), I finally get around to seeing local areas of interest. Yesterday we checked out the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, which was full of Oregon Trail trivia. Here are some of my favorite bits.

1. Awesome hairstyles were par for the course. The photos (well, daguerreotypes) in many exhibits showed dudes with out-of-control hairstyles. See the image at right for some examples (see also: "Father of Oregon" Dr. John McLoughlin and the same as an image macro). (Pictured above right: Sam Barlow and Joel Palmer -- later, Palmer's neck beard got vastly more protuberant.)

2. Emigrants didn't know how to handle their guns. According to several exhibits, accidental gunfire was a leading cause of death on the Oregon Trail (and I seem to remember this from the Oregon Trail video game). The issue was that emigrants brought muzzle-loading rifles which required a laborious loading procedure -- involving a piece of wetted cotton, a lead ball, a ramrod, a firing cap, and a few minutes of fiddling -- which was deemed too time-consuming if the weapon was needed in a hurry. As a result, wagons were trundling along the plains with loaded rifles in them. Of course, when a wagon hit a big enough bump, the weapon would discharge, often with tragic results. (Later invention of the breech-loading rifle largely eliminated this problem.)

3. Oregon City was a big deal. Now a small community near the vastly larger city of Portland, Oregon City was the capital of the Oregon Territory in the late 1840's, and it contained the only land office serving a huge region of the American West. This meant that for a time, if you wanted to plat a new city anywhere on the west coast, you'd have to make it to Oregon City to get your plans approved. (The most famous example of this was San Francisco: after it was platted, the plans were schlepped up to Oregon for approval because California wasn't yet a state and thus didn't have a land office.)

4. The first Oregonian woman to vote arrived via the Oregon Trail. Abigail Scott Duniway arrived in Oregon in 1852, keeping a diary of the journey which recorded, among other things, the death of her mother on the trail. In 1872, Duniway started a newspaper, The New Northwest, in which she debated her brother Harvey Scott (a writer for The Oregonian) on the issue of women's suffrage. In 1912 Duniway became the first woman to vote in Oregon.

5. The Oregon Boot was not something you wanted on your foot. The museum had an example of an Oregon Boot, which is a heavy leg shackle used on prisoners to prevent them from running. The fun part of the exhibit is strapping the Oregon Boot to your own leg and hobbling around. The sad part is thinking about the podiatric suffering Oregon prisoners must have endured living with the damn things.

There's lots more to learn at the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, should you find yourself near Portland with an afternoon to kill!

More on Oregon History

Get the real deal on Oregon history from The Oregon Encyclopedia.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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