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Frederick Law Olmsted & His Beautiful Parks

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Frederick Law Olmsted (1822 - 1903) is far from a household name these days, having died over a century ago. Despite this, his reach remains wide in the United States. Olmsted was a landscape designer and pioneer of landscape architecture, and was the genius behind many urban green spaces that still exist today, and continue to anchor their cities with a measure of respect for nature. Olmsted prided himself on his ability to place natural-looking spaces smack in the middle of cities, and took great care in making his designs feel organic. He was as prolific as a landscape architect can get, and designed spaces as far west as Berkeley, California, and as far east as Boston. Below are some of his grander and more interesting designs.

1. Central Park

800px-Lower_Central_Park_Shot_5First and most obvious on any list of Olmsted designs is Central Park. In 1857, a landscape design contest was held to determine who would design the huge swath of land in the center of Manhattan. Olmsted, who at the time was a writer, worked with architect Calvert Vaux to win the competition with their Greensward Plan, an innovative design that gave high priority to natural-looking landscapes and separate pathways for pedestrians and other modes of transport, like bicycles and horses. A particularly beautiful and interesting feature was the use of multidimensional pathways-- Vaux designed 36 separate bridges, which were used all over the park to create interesting intersections. The design, which required the removal of ten million cartloads of dirt and rocks and the installation of more than four million trees, shrubs, and plants, was not officially completed until 1873.

2. The Emerald Necklace

arnoldarboretumThe Emerald Necklace actually describes a chain of several parks that reach from Boston to Brookline, Massachusetts, including the Boston Commons, Boston Public Garden, the eponymous Olmsted park, and the Arnold Arboretum. Olmsted originally designed the project in 1878 to link the Boston Common with Franklin Park, and by doing so clean up the marshy in-between areas of Back Bay and Fens near Boston. The chain of parks, which constitute a long series of walking paths along the water is now seven miles long, with a significant portion of the water that occupied Back Bay redirected into the Charles River. The Arnold Arboretum in particular exemplifies the great care Olmsted took in designing his parks: rather than flattening the landscape and ensuring orderly pathways, he carved them around the existing plant life, making a beautiful exhibit out what was already there. Also a gifted botanist, Olmsted also helped classify and arrange some of the newer plants in the park with the new classification system created by Bentham and Hooker.

3. The Columbian Exposition

800px-Chicago_expo_Midway_PlaisanceChicago was able to snatch the honor of hosting the 1893 World's Fair away from the hands of many other hopeful cities, including New York. However, at the time, Chicago had a long way to go to become a city fit to do so: in just a few years, Chicago had to turn its blackened, industrial urban spaces into a celebration of enlightenment and civilization. Olmsted had a heavy hand in this transformation, and during the preparation period drastically renovated no fewer than three parks in Chicago: Washington Park, Jackson Park, and the Midway Plaisance. Olmsted took special care in developing the three, despite many setbacks like swampy areas and vegetation crushed by workers setting up other parts of the exposition. Olmsted originally conceived of a Venetian canal system that would connect "lagoons" he constructed in each of the parks, but this proved to be too much of a hassle and the plan was abandoned. Once completed, the parks saw over 26 million visitors as part of the Columbian Exposition, and remain in existence today.

4. Congress Park

Congress ParkCongress Park in Saratoga Springs, New York, is a relatively small operation when compared to the like of Central Park, but has very unique features. Saratoga Springs, as the name suggests, is home to several natural springs that were revered in Olmsted's day for their ability to impart health and youth (later, everyone realized they were just water). Nonetheless, the park was designed in the 1870s around the springs, and even today has several small pavilions housing spigots that produce water from various springs that have different aromas and flavors. The park is also home to an old gambling casino, as well as an original carousel.

5. Cherokee Park

300px-Cherokee_parkCherokee Park is a municipal park in Louisville Kentucky, and one of 18 parks in the area designed by Olmsted. It was opened in 1892, and its design probably coincided with that of the Columbian Exposition, adding to Olmsted's load at the time. Like his other parks, Olmsted designed the park to integrate with the natural landscape shapes found in Kentucky, with gently rollling hills and long pathways that surround Beargrass Creek, which runs through most of the park. Its features today include Baringer Spring, a stream crisscrossed by several walkways; an archery range; hiking trails; and Big Rock, an outcropping eight feet over the surface of Beargrass Creek that is popular as a picnicking and swimming area.

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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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