CLOSE
Original image

American Monuments: The Statue of Liberty

Original image

This week, David Clark will be our tour guide as we take a closer look at some of America's greatest monuments. His series kicks off today with highlights from the history of "Liberty Enlightening the World," known to the masses as the Statue of Liberty: her life as modern colossus, wartime pin-up centerfold, copper bosom to comfort the weary, hostage for the dissatisfied, and bane of Vigo.

The Conception and Birth of Our Stern Green Giant

Ambitions ran high towards the end of the 19th century, and French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi was aching to build a modern colossus. The Colossus of Rhodes, archetype of Western colossi, was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: a hundred-foot-high sculpture of the Greek sun-god Helios that loomed over the harbor of Rhodes in the 3rd century B.C. Many people agreed that Bartholdi's modern colossus idea was a fine one -- then as now, people liked anything big, and always found it gratifying to compare themselves to Ancient Greeks -- but when it came time to shell out for materials, the rich and powerful would shrug, mutter something about other priorities, and shuffle away. (If Bartholdi hadn't been frustrated at first, Lady Liberty might have been built in Egypt as a lighthouse for the Suez Canal, titled "Egypt Bringing Light to Asia." As though they don't have enough hulking monuments already.)


Nevertheless, circumstances eventually granted Bartholdi his chance. The French were planning to give an ostentatious gift to the United States in honor of the centennial anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and in celebration of our mutual affection for liberty and republics and that kind of thing. Bartholdi pitched the idea of a giant Lady Liberty -- a symbol that tied modern republican ideals to classical Rome -- and France deemed it worthy. She would be titled "Liberty Enlightening the World," she would have skin of beaten copper, and she would bear the Torch of Enlightenment, a seven-pointed halo, an unwieldy toga, a strong and sober brow, and a tablet spelling out in Roman numerals the birthday of the USA (July IV, MDCCLXXVI).

Work began in Paris during the 1870s, but only an arm was ready for 1876, the true centennial year.

This limb was exhibited at the World's Fair in Philadelphia that year; then the head appeared two years later at another World's Fair, in Paris. The full woman was finally ready for display in 1884, so they packed her into hundreds of crates, shipped her oversea, and rebuilt the Statue atop a star-shaped pedestal the US had set up for her (with much less enthusiasm and much more fundraising troubles than the French had), on a little island that had served in the past as a pesthouse, quarantine station, gallows, military prison, and dump, among other things. Then during a grand celebration in late 1886, the Statue of Liberty was dedicated, and its face was dramatically unveiled from behind a French flag. At the time, she was the tallest structure in New York, at 305 feet. Rumor has it she looks like Bartholdi's mother.

The American Colossus quickly turned green -- which was inevitable, since copper will oxidize whenever given the chance. But nobody minded terribly except maybe Bartholdi, who had hoped the statue would be gilded, and in fact never felt satisfied that the Americans understood how fantastic his statue truly was, how symbolically potent, how politically inspiring, and so on.

Military Icon and Mother of Exiles

After the parades, high-flown rhetoric and fanfare of her unveiling, the Statue of Liberty endured periods of neglect and indifference. Some regarded her as little more than New York's ornate, bedraggled lighthouse. The World Wars, however, bolstered public appreciation for Lady Liberty: she was the symbolic crusader against tyranny and feminine counterpart to Uncle Sam -- the original Ms. America. A celebration of her 50th anniversary, presided over by President Roosevelt, stimulated further interest in the Statue as an icon of the American Way.

colossus.jpgThrough those years of growing favor, Lady Liberty acquired another meaning, as well -- something less militant, more maternal. Due in part to her proximity to Ellis Island, the Statue came to represent America as a refuge for immigrants, and embodied for weary sea travelers the promise of freedom and prosperity. The Statue doesn't quite have the eyes of a welcoming mother, but she's at least humanoid, and unarmed, so that's welcome enough. Early in the Statue's life, the poet Emma Lazarus divined this significance and dubbed her "Mother of Exiles," in a sonnet that is now world famous -- but was little known until the 1930s. Inspired by an influx of harried Jews fleeing persecution in Russia, Lazarus wrote the celebrated lines: "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breath free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore." Titled "The New Colossus" and engraved inside the pedestal's entrance in 1903, Lazarus' sonnet captures an interpretation of the Statue that later generations would come to embrace.

The Ultimate Hostage, the Ultimate Hippie

Since World War II, Americans have considered the Statue a vital national symbol, manifesting any number of powerful and sometimes clashing values. As a locus of American identity and the troubled American Dream, she became a potent object for political gestures -- and in the 1970s these culminated in a series of occupations. Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) snuck into the Statue and barricaded her entrances in 1971. They flew the flag upside down from Liberty's crown and remained inside for a VVAW.jpgcouple of days, demanding withdrawal from Vietnam, before they peacefully dispersed. The VVAW re-occupied the Statue after the war's end to draw attention to the wretched treatment of American veterans. In 1977, a group of Iranians holed up inside the Statue to protest the Shah's crimes in Iran, and America's role in them. Then again that same year, Puerto Rican nationalists captured the Statue and draped a Puerto Rican flag from the crown.


There was a more passive attempt to appropriate the national icon in 1968, when a well-meaning hippie offered a colorful, colossus-sized string of beads that he'd custom-made for Lady Liberty. "They are lightweight, waterproof and made to go around her neck and extend to her waist," he wrote; and by wearing them the Statue would "reflect the fashion of the forward-thinking people who are changing the attitudes in America today." Sadly, the Park Service turned down the gift -- or else we might have witnessed the spectacle of an angry President Nixon, emphatic enemy of the so-called counterculture, slashing and tearing the beads from Lady Liberty like one of Cinderella's vicious step-sisters . . .

The Spectacle of Lady Liberty

Hollywood hasn't shied from making a spectacle of the Statue and all its symbolic suggestions. She's served as the scene for a number of climactic battles, from Hitchcock's Saboteur to X-Men. She's been demolished, toppled, beheaded, and burned by the many enemies of Life and Liberty -- including aliens, sea beasts, the prehistoric reptile Rodan (enemy of Godzilla), Nuclear Man (who throws the Statue at Superman), Mother Nature (famous for mood swings), and the self-destructive human race -- whom Charlton Heston dramatically damns to hell at the end of Planet of the Apes.

I say the Statue's most profound and moving role (at least her most mobile) is in Ghostbusters II. Animated by reactive purple mood goo, the power of positive thinking, and some hot dance music, Lady Liberty struts through Manhattan and cheers up New Yorkers enough that their high spirits bring down Vigo the Carpathian, that dark sorcerer and savage baby-thief. Bartholdi himself could not have envisioned that his Statue would work such untold wonders.

See Also: The Unfinished Tribute to Crazy Horse, The Washington Monument, The Gateway Arch (And Why It's Not Fascist)

twitterbanner.jpg

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
iStock
Animals
arrow
Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
Original image
iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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