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Happy Labor Day!

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"What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures." So said Samuel Gompers, founder of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions in 1881. On the day that we honor working men and women, let's revisit the origins of Labor Day.

Most of us regard Labor Day as the last "hurrah!" of Summer—a three-day weekend to make one final getaway before autumn encroaches, or at least an excuse to fire up the grill one last time. But Labor Day was originally founded in 1882 as not only a celebration (with picnics and parades in New York City's Reservoir Park) for the working man, but also as a public rally to gain support for an eight-hour work day. (Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, it was not unusual for companies to require workers to stay on the job for 10 to 12 hour shifts with no overtime pay.) For the next few years, workers who chose to march in parades on the first Monday in September took the off without pay in order to participate. Oregon was the first state to recognize Labor Day as a legal paid holiday in 1887.

The Pullman Strike

pullman

In 1894 approximately 3,000 workers at Illinois' Pullman Palace Car Company initiated a wildcat strike in protest of recent wage cuts. Rail traffic in Chicago and points west ground to a halt as a result, and President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops in to settle matters, since the strike was interfering with the delivery of U.S. mail. Violence erupted, strikers were killed, and Cleveland received very negative press for his decision. In an effort to appease American workers, he signed a bill in 1894 declaring Labor Day a national holiday.

Labor Unions

American labor unions are almost as old as the nation itself. As early as 1648, the seeds of unionization were planted when coopers (barrel makers) and shoemakers in Boston banded together and formed guilds. The first collective bargaining unit was formed in Philadelphia in 1792, where a group of shoe-makers held regular meetings and collected dues. Not too long afterward, leather workers and carpenters in Boston followed suit, as well as printers in New York City.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2005 15.8 million Americans are dues-paying members of labor unions. California may not be a hotbed of manufacturing, but thanks to Hollywood and the vast array of different people needed to pump out movies and TV shows (including the carpenters that build sets, make-up artists, caterers and other behind-the-scenes workers) that state leads the nation in union membership. It's only logical that Wyoming, as the least populous state in the U.S., is also the state that has the lowest union membership.

Why Are They Called "Teamsters"?

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is one of the largest labor unions in the United States. Have you ever wondered how this group of professional drivers and warehouse workers got their name? It dates back to 1903, when most deliveries were made by horse-drawn wagons. The driver was referred to as a "teamster," because he was teamstersthe one who managed the team that was pulling the load.


Today when the Teamsters are mentioned, the name "Jimmy Hoffa" immediately comes to mind. Hoffa was president of that union from 1958 until 1971, the last four of which he administered while behind bars—he'd been convicted of attempted bribery and jury tampering. He was last seen in the parking lot of the Machus Red Fox restaurant in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, in 1975. The Red Fox closed in 1996, but in all the intervening years, wait staff reported that not a week went by without at least one customer asking which booth Jimmy Hoffa had sat in that fateful July afternoon.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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