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Blending Stupendousness With Elegance: The Washington Monument

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This week, David Clark will be our tour guide as we take a closer look at some of America's greatest monuments. His series continues today with the story of the Washington Monument.

Born to Broken Promises

Only ten days after the death of George Washington (in 1799), Congress decided they should build some kind of grand monument for the late president-general, the "Father of His Country." A couple of schemes came up, a few elaborate fantasies, but nothing material happened. And nothing continued to happen, as nothing does, despite several fervid public statements made by G.W. enthusiasts, decrying the delay and upbraiding a nation of ingrates and ditherers.

A New Resolve, and a Search for Stupendousness

This guilt-ridden procrastination continued on until the most passionate Washington Monument devotees formed a Washington National Monument Society in 1833, to kick-start the long-postponed project and give the Father of Founding Fathers his due. They had lofty ambitions for a piece of work that would "blend stupendousness with elegance," and they invited artists nationwide to submit designs in an open competition. Where the pointy spire now stands, we could have had an ornate Gothic tower, a creepy mini-pyramid, a rectangular column with a Washington-Colossus perched atop. But final victory went to the offering of Robert Mills, whose obelisk expressed that special "stupendousness" everyone was looking for.

(Obelisks, of course, were a favorite shape first for the Ancient Egyptians, and then for the Romans. Conquering Roman armies often pilfered Egyptian obelisks and lugged them back to Rome or some other imperial metropolis. After the Empire had its way, there were more obelisks in Rome alone than in all of Egypt. So anything the Romans liked that much was bound to be an instant hit with the early American Republic, as Mills no doubt knew.)

Construction Begins, Despite the Displeasure of Poets

Now that Congress had the basic idea -- something tall, thin, and decidedly phallic -- nothing happened again for a while as partisans bickered over details. The obstructive effect of these minor revisions was compounded by lackluster fundraising, and some public opposition. Walt Whitman, for instance, wrote in 1847 that "of that plan [for the Washington Monument], we cannot find terms to speak in sufficient contempt!" (Virulent patriot that he was, Whitman thought stone monuments more worthy of "mere common heroes," like Napoleon, or Roman Emperors.) Still, the cornerstone was laid at last in 1848, amid all the parading and hoopla one would expect from that kind of event.

Some people make a big fuss about the Monument's chosen location, how it's in the entirely wrong place and it spoils L'Enfants' visionary layout for Washington D.C. But that's all based off arcane symbology, esoteric Freemasonry, astronomy, and over-learned gibberish. So forget it.

Know-Nothings Hijack Monument to Save Nation From Popery

Funds remained scarce until Alabama initiated a breakthrough strategy. The states were each asked to donate money to the monument project; so Alabama, lacking money, offered a commemorative, engraved brick. It said, "Alabama. A union of equality, as adjusted by the constitution." -- subtly uppity, perhaps, but not out of line for a pre-Civil War motto. Organizers appreciated the gesture and asked the country for more stones. Before long, states, cities, societies, native tribes, companies, and lots of Freemasons were sending custom-chiseled bricks to D.C. -- sometimes with money attached, often without.

Things looked up for the Monument until the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know Nothings -- officially known as the American Party -- got wind that Pope Pius the IX had donated a stone. Unwilling to endure such vile papist poison in an American monument, the Know Nothings abducted the Pope's stone and, most likely, drowned it in the Potomac. Soon after, they managed to seize the whole Monument Society in a kind of democratic coup. In reaction, Congress withheld funding from the project until the Know Nothing party collapsed at last in 1857. After that, though, the Civil War happened, soaking up the available money and labor, and the Washington Monument had to wait a little longer.

Disgraceful Chimney Becomes Impressive Obelisk: Washington Honored At Last


Stalled with construction less than one-third complete, the grand monument was an eyesore and a disgrace, little more than a silly-looking rectangle. Mark Twain wrote in 1868, "It is just the general size and shape, and possesses about the dignity, of a sugar-mill chimney." Others around the country called for the monument to be completed at once or gracefully demolished.

And yet Congress managed a few more years of puttering and reconsidering. Some alternate designs were entertained again. Although they stuck with Mills' original, in the end, they imposed some dramatic revisions. Among other things, Congress ended up cutting the classical temple Mills' intended for the obelisk's base, a prominent image of the Egyptian Winged-Sun, and a thirty-foot statue of Washington in a toga, riding a six-horse chariot. They added a pointy tip. Mills reportedly complained that his obelisk without its temple-colonnade would look as ridiculous as "a stalk of asparagus" -- nobody listened.

Congress built up the nerve by 1880 to lay a new cornerstone 150 feet in the air: an official "second chance." This time they were determined to get the thing done, and by 1884 the capstone was set on the pyramidion at the peak, the obelisk finished at 555 feet, and George Washington was the worthy honoree of the tallest manmade structure in the world. That statistic changed, of course, but the Washington Monument does remain to this day the tallest freestanding masonry built up by human hands.

Previously: The Statue of Liberty, The Gateway Arch, The Unfinished Tribute to Crazy Horse

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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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]