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The Quick 10: 10 Things in the Skull and Bones Society's Tomb

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I'm sure you've all heard of the uber-top-secret-this-message-will-self-destruct Skull and Bones society at Yale. The Bushes have been members since way back when; other Bonesmen include an illustrious list of other presidents (William Howard Taft), high-up business executives, Supreme Court justices, politicians and journalists. We know that their headquarters is called "The Tomb" and it houses many secrets, but a few of those have been uncovered thanks to the intrepid journalism of Alexandra Robbins, who managed to get more than 100 Bonesmen to speak to her about the Stonecutters, errr, Skull and Bones. Here are 10 of the things that may (or may not) lie within the walls of The Tomb.

geronimo1. Geronimo's skull. This one is pretty well-known, and although it's never been proven, Robbins says it's one of the more likely items to be behind the closed doors. And who allegedly stole it? None other than Prescott Bush, G.W.'s grandpa. Six members of Skull and Bones, including Bush, were tasked with guarding Fort Sill, the site of Geronimo's grave, during WWI. Various documents have been found verifying that the skull does indeed reside with the Skull and Bones Society, but some experts say there's no way Geronimo's cranium is anywhere but his final resting place at Fort Sill.

2. Pancho Villa's skull. The rumor is that the society bought the skull for $25,000 in 1926, shortly after the skull was stolen from Villa's grave. Skull and Bones has denied this, of course, and some members have gone off the record saying that the society is way too cheap to pay that kind of money for a skull. Robbins originally confirmed in her book that Skull and Bones was definitely in possession of Villa's cabeza, but has since retracted that. Hmm.

3. Martin Van Buren's skull.

With so many U.S. presidents in their ranks, I guess it makes sense that the Bones would have a presidential skull hidden away somewhere. This one has never been even remotely proved and for all we know, all parts of Van Buren are still safely buried in the Kinderhook Cemetery in Kinderhook, N.Y. But why Van Buren? Your guess is as good as mine"¦ one thing's for sure, though: the Van Buren Boys certainly aren't going to be happy about this. And they're every bit as mean as he was, you know.

4. A set of Hitler's silverware. Another "why?" item, in my opinion. This isn't nearly as special as you might think, though: just head to Alabama to see some Fuhrer relics. His tea service resides in Anniston, Alabama, and his typewriter has a home in Bessemer. His Rolls Royce is in Cochise, Arizona; his hat and coat are in Atlanta; some of his beer steins are in Lomita, California; his desk keys are in Estes Park, Colorado; and his supposed horse is buried in St. Rose, Louisiana. So keep your silverware, Skull and Bones. We're not impressed.

skull5. Coffins, which seems appropriate for a place called "The Tomb." Legend has it that initiates have to lie in the coffins and recount all of their sexual experiences and fantasies to the patriarchs (everyone who isn't an initiate). Some reports have debunked this, though, saying that no coffins are involved "“ the initiates merely have to stand in front of a portrait of a woman named Connubial Bliss and recite their entire sexual history.
6. License plates bearing the number 322. According to an account of a girl whose Bonesman boyfriend took her in to tour the Tomb, a whole wall is filled with license plates with the number "322." This is the number that represents the group, although the reason why is another one of those mysteries that outsiders have been guessing at for years. Apparently Bonesmen are told to "liberate" any license plate with their number on it, so if you happen to have a license plate with that particular combination, don't be surprised if it goes missing.

7. The gravestone of Yale's founder. Robbins says the original gravestone of Elihu Yale was stolen from its original spot on the grounds of St. Giles' Church in Wrexham, Wales, and is now sitting in a glass case in the Tomb.

8. Large portraits of its most famous members, including William Howard Taft and George H.W. Bush. A conservator in Connecticut spent six years restoring 15 paintings from the Skull and Bones headquarters and says the inside isn't all that foreboding. She likened it to the Addams Family "“ kind of "funny-spooky."

9. A couch. Yep. Crazy, huh? Despite the presence of skulls and gravestones and coffins, one member said the Tomb was a lot like a college dorm, just swathed in more secrecy. He told Robbins it was "A place that used to be really nice but felt kind of beat up, lived in. There were socks underneath the couch, old half-deflated soccer balls lying around."

10. "Madame Pompadour," a skeleton which Bonesmen believe to be Madame de Pompadour. She resides in the Inner Temple and protects founding papers and other important society documents.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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