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50 Reasons to Subscribe to mental_floss (#43, Crazy Frauds in History)

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With the holidays just a few months away, we're introducing a new feature where we sift through 6 years of print archives and give you a smattering of the best of the _floss. If you dig what you see, subscribe here.

The Torn Identity:

How an Earthquake Spawned One of the Greatest Immigration Fraud Schemes in History

by Jack Feerick

250px-Sfearthquake3.jpg Natural disasters aren't typically a cause for celebration, but the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 had Chinese immigrants feeling some seriously good vibrations. Turns out, the same great quake that set fire to so much of the foggy city also set off a mass influx of Chinese workers to California. In the aftermath of destroyed documents and burned paper trails, a long-running scheme of coordinated immigration fraud emerged that reunited families across the Pacific and opened doors to thousands of overseas laborers.

Invitation Only
Since the Gold Rush days, Chinese workers had been coming to California by the thousands. In fact, their labor had become essential to the construction of the transcontinental railroad. And yet, in 1882, pressure from white labor unions forced Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred the immigration of Chinese laborers to America and disqualified workers already in the United States from seeking citizenship. But there was one exception. The Exclusion Act still allowed for the naturalization of family members of U.S.-born citizens. And after the earthquake hit on April 18, 1906, there were suddenly a lot more Chinese-Americans to be found.
The quake, estimated at close to 8.0 on the Richter scale, sparked a series of massive fires that raged for three days and left more than half of San Francisco's population homeless. Roughly 500 square blocks of downtown went up in flames, destroying key municipal buildings and offices—and with them, countless birth and citizenship records. Almost immediately, thousands of quick-thinking Chinese laborers living in the States came forward to claim their U.S. citizenship and report that their records had been lost in the fire. With nothing but ashes to turn to, immigration officials had no choice but to take them at their word. In most cases, citizenship was granted, along with the legal right to import family members from China. Thus arose a strange industry of forged documents, false histories, and "paper families."

Before long, an underground economy of immigration brokers had sprung up on both sides of the Pacific, matching new Chinese-Americans with would-be immigrants. "Paper fathers" in the States and "paper sons" (or, more rarely, "paper daughters") in China were supplied phony documents and coaching letters that laid out their false family histories in minute detail. Often, "paper children" spent their long ocean voyages to America brushing up on their newly written pasts.

Paper jam
Tipped off to the scam, U.S. immigration inspectors detained people arriving from China and interrogated them for hours or even days. Paper children and their paper parents would be grilled separately on the minutiae of their assumed identities—anything from where the family rice bin was kept to what direction their front door faced. Any discrepancy between the two sets of answers was grounds for immediate deportation.
Passing such cruelly stressful tests was surely a huge relief, but it wasn't without its repercussions. The immigrants' false identities had to stay with them for life. Allowed residency but barred from citizenship, the newcomers were vulnerable to deportation at any time. Immigration inspectors could raid their homes without a warrant or stop them in the street at random and demand identification. In some cases, men who'd grown up together had to pretend they were total strangers in order to maintain their cover stories.
And any paper son who returned to China for a visit was subject to enduring the whole rigmarole of verification all over again upon his return. On the other hand, countless other biological sons, fathers, and brothers were no longer forced to live isolated from one another across the Pacific.

As a peculiar aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, hundreds of thousands of Chinese entered the United States while the Chinese Exclusion Act was being enforced. Not until 1943, after the United States and China formed an alliance during World War II, was the act repealed—giving Chinese-born U.S. immigrants a chance to live again under their own names.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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