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The Nine Lives of Andrew Jackson

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It's a wonder Andrew Jackson was able to defeat the British during the War of 1812. And found the modern Democratic Party. And become President of the United States. After all, Jackson should've died many, many times before he had the opportunity to do any of those things.

Little Orphan Andrew

The sun rarely shined on Andrew Jackson's childhood. At 14, Andrew and his brother, Robert, were captured, starved, and abused by the British during the Revolutionary War. After finally being released, they were forced to trek 45 miles to a POW camp in the rain. Robert was so sick that he was slung over the back of a horse. Andrew, meanwhile, was left to trudge through the mud—barefoot, without a jacket, and delirious with smallpox. Their mother eventually negotiated for the boys' release, but Robert died only two days after reaching the family home. Bedridden for months, Andrew pulled through miraculously.

Once Andrew had been nursed back to health, his mother left to tend sick prisoners of war in Charleston Harbor, 160 miles away. There, she succumbed to cholera and died. Since his father had passed away before he was born, Andrew suddenly found himself a penniless orphan. He moved to the town of Salisbury, N.C., where he scrubbed the floors of a law office by day and roamed the streets by night, stealing signposts and moving outhouses where no one could find them.

The Hot-headed Gunslinger

The next 100 times Andrew Jackson should have died were in duels of honor—the old-fashioned variety, where sometimes men fired their pistols into the air and sometimes they didn't. Often, these run-ins were instigated by talk of Jackson's wife, Rachel, who'd previously been with an abusive husband. Jackson valiantly rescued her from the nasty situation, yet the finality of her divorce at the time of their wedding was questionable at best. Needless to say, this was a sore spot for Jackson, and he wasn't afraid to draw his pistol at any mention of it. In fact, things only got worse when he decided to run for president, as it became the topic of a massive smear campaign. Rachel was called a bigamist more times than she could handle, and she died of a heart attack before she could even make it to the White House.

Although not all of Jackson's duels were near-death experiences, at least two of them were. Once, for instance, he was shot squarely in the chest. Normally, that sort of thing would signal the end of a duel, but Jackson simply staunched the wound with a handkerchief, and then shot and killed his opponent. The bullet, however, was lodged so close to Jackson's heart that it couldn't be removed, and he suffered from chest pains and excessive phlegm for the rest of his life. In another fight, two bullets shattered Jackson's arm and left shoulder. Doctors wanted to amputate, but Jackson refused for fear it would ruin his military career.

The War Hero

Jackson also should've died at some point during his glory days on the battlefield. He became a national hero for "clearing out" the American Indians from the South and for defeating the British at the Battle of New Orleans in early 1815, but General Jackson also fought less glorious battles against malaria, diarrhea, and starvation. In one campaign against the Creek Indians in 1813, he survived on nothing but acorns.

The Enormously Popular President

andrew-jackson.gifThe combination of Jackson's humble roots and military success made him wildly popular in the rough-and-tumble early days of the United States. Winning the Oval Office by a landslide in 1828, he was proclaimed "The People's President" in much the same way the British proclaimed Diana "The People's Princess." America's six previous presidents were born rich and had been well-educated, whereas Jackson had once cleaned floors for a living. But the citizens who loved Jackson nearly killed him, too. On Jackson's inauguration day, a mob of well-wishers rushed the White House lawn to shake hands with him. The crowd became so thick that the president would have been crushed to death if his friends hadn't formed a protective ring around him to shield him from the mob.


Of course, no matter how popular a president is, there are always those eager to take him down. In 1835, Jackson was leaving the Capitol building when a demented misanthrope named Richard Lawrence approached him with a raised pistol. Too shocked to move, the president watched as Lawrence fired a shot. Nothing happened. Then the assailant produced a second gun and fired. Again, nothing happened. Horrified, onlookers wrestled Lawrence to the ground and held him until he could be taken into custody. Only later would the strange truth become known that both pistols had been properly loaded. Odds of two misfires in a row: 1 in 125,000. The expression on Lawrence's face: Priceless.

Jenny Drapkin is the Senior Editor of mental_floss magazine. We've been serializing "All The Presidents' Secrets," her fantastic feature from the September-October 2007 issue. (Would you care to subscribe?)

Previous Installments: Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Johnson, Rutherford B. Hayes, Calvin Coolidge, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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