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The Quick 10: 10 Facts About the American Flag

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Sunday commemorates the United States' 93rd Flag Day. Sort of. We'll get to that in a second. It's one of those underrated holidays that doesn't get too much attention, but we're bucking that trend here on the _floss by dedicating 10 facts just to the flag.

flag day1. It was 1916 that Woodrow Wilson set aside June 14 as the the date for honoring the flag. But it wasn't actually declared National Flag Day until 1949, when it was established by an act of Congress. Why June 14? Because that's the day in 1777 that the Second Continental Congress adopted Betty Ross' (according to popular legend, anyway) flag as the official flag of the United States.
2. You know the story "“ George Washington prevailed upon Betsy Ross to create a flag for the country and she sewed it up with her bare hands. It's a nice story and all, but nearly all flag historians believe it probably never really happened. Our only source for this tale is her family "“ no historical records seem to back it up. No records show that the Continental Congress issued a flag to be designed, no invoice or any supporting documents have ever been found amongst Betsy's detailed records, and no mention of a national flag appears in Congress records until the Flag Resolution of 1777.

3. The United States Flag Code specifies that the flag should never be dipped to any person or thing. As far as we can tell, this custom dates back to the 1908 London Olympics. All countries were asked to respectfully dip their flags to the Royal Box when the procession passed by King Edward VII, but Ralph Rose, the American track and field athlete holding the flag, refused to comply. His teammate Martin Sheridan later explained, "This flag dips to no earthly king." The tradition has been upheld ever since and was officially written into the Flag Code in 1911.

4. I see this rule of the Flag Code broken all of the time, and I bet you do too: the flag should not be used for any advertising purpose, including worn on clothes or for decoration in general (it's fine on coffins). I'm picturing myself in the early "˜90s "“ cutoff jean shorts with cuffs and a big, oversized American flag t-shirt "“ and I feel guilty for so many reasons.

washington5. There's a theory that the red and white stripes on the flag were based on George Washington's coat of arms. There's no proof for this; the idea is based purely on the resemblance of colors and shapes. Most historians think the flag was probably based off of the Sons of Liberty flag. If you've ever read Johnny Tremaine you probably remember these guys "“ they were a secret organization that rebelled against British taxes and laws. Their flag was nine vertical stripes, commonly red and white (yellow and green were also sometimes used instead of red). It's thought that the nine stripes represented the number of colonies that would attend the Stamp Act Congress.

6. You no doubt know that "Old Glory" refers to the flag, but there's actually a specific flag that started the trend. It was made for Captain William Driver to fly from the mast of his whaling ship in the early 1800s. Measuring 10 feet by 17 feet, it was pretty large and rather difficult to conceal when the Civil War broke out. Old Glory had become rather famous thanks to Driver and his travels, and he believed that Confederate soldiers wanted to destroy his beloved flag to send a message to the Union. He had it sewn inside a quilt and it remained there until the Union took Nashville back. Then, the story goes, Driver flew Old Glory from the state capitol building in celebration. These days, she resides in the Smithsonian and will probably stay there for the rest of her existence "“ the flag was taken out for an exhibition in 2006 and it was determined afterward that it was too fragile to be moved from the museum ever again.

starspangled7. There is also a specific Star-Spangled Banner. It's the flag Francis Scott Key saw when he was watching Fort McHenry being bombarded during the War of 1812 "“ his tale goes just like the song goes: after gunfire and rain all night, the flag was still standing when the sun rose. Inspired, Key wrote down what he was feeling "“ but when he wrote it, it was simply a poem called "Defense of Fort McHenry." It became a song when Key's brother-in-law discovered that the poem perfectly fit the tune of a popular song called "The Anacreontic Song." Although the song was played at public events and on patriotic occasions from that point on, it wasn't officially named as the national anthem until after Robert Ripley of Ripley's Believe it or Not noted in his cartoon that "Believe It or Not, America has no national anthem." John Philip Sousa rallied for The Star-Spangled Banner to become the new national anthem, and on March 3, 1931, Herbert Hoover signed a law making it so.

8. The designer of our current 50-star flag was a high school student at the time. It was 1958 and there was some chatter that Alaska and Hawaii were going to officially become states 49 and 50. One of his teachers capitalized on the current events of the day and had his students design a new flag incorporating the two new states. Robert G. Heft did just that, arranging the stars so it wasn't very evident that he had added any. His teacher gave him a B-, saying that the design was unoriginal. When Heft balked at the grade, his teacher told him that if he could get the flag adopted by Congress, he would bump the grade up to an A. Heft jumped at the opportunity and sent the flag to his congressman, who ended up getting the flag approved. Heft got the grade increase. Since then, Heft's original homemade flag has flown over every single state capitol building, over 88 U.S. embassies, and over the White House for five administrations. He has a design with 51 stars ready to go if the need arises.

9. There are a handful of flags that are displayed continuously despite weather conditions. A few of the places you can find these flags include the Iwo Jima Memorial in Washington, D.C.; the Washington Monument; Gettysburg College at a spot that served as a lookout and hospital during the Civil War (fittingly, this one is a Civil War flag); at the Maryland birthplace and grace of Francis Scott Key; on the surface of the moon; at Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, S.D.,; and in Nashville City Cemetery over the grave site of William Driver.

10. There's a proper way to fly a flag at half staff, and it's not just hoisting it halfway and stopping "“ it has to go to the top of the pole first before it is slowly lowered to the appropriate height. Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first President to officially issue the half-staff proclamation.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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