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The Quick 9: Nine Capitals of the United States

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Washington, D.C., hasn't always been the political center of the United States. In fact, nine different cities across the country have served as the nation's capital at one point or another, even if only for a day (and technically, some of them can't be called capitals of the United States, but the capital of the colonies). Here they are:

carpenter1. Philadelphia, Pa., was the very first capital. The First Continental Congress had to meet in Carpenters' Hall (pictured) from September 5 to October 26, 1774, because Independence Hall was being used by the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Philly has been home to Congress sessions on six separate occasions, making it the most frequent U.S. capital (although not the longest-used one).
2. Baltimore was briefly the capital when the Continental Congress decided it would be best to get out of Philadelphia since the British were coming, the British were coming!! (Sorry.) They thought Baltimore might be a good temporary home, but they were wrong: one delegate rudely called the town "an extravagant hole." They returned to Philly as soon as possible, but didn't stay for long. By September, the situation was taking a turn for the worse again"¦

3. Lancaster, Pa., has the distinction of being capital for merely a day. On September 27, 1777, the Continental Congress was forced to flee Philadelphia because the British had forced them out during the American Revolution. They met for just a single day before moving even farther away from the redcoats"¦

4. York, Pa. York is actually where the Articles of Confederation were drafted. York sometimes declares itself the First Capital of the United States because the Articles of Confederation are the first known legal documents to actually refer to the colonies as "the United States of America." The Declaration of Independence uses the phrase as well, but some historians say it wasn't a legal document at the time because the colonies were still under British rule.

nassau5. Princeton, N.J. "“ specifically, Nassau Hall "“ hosted the Congress of the Confederation from July through October 1783. Princeton University says that while Congress was here, they "congratulated George Washington on his termination of the war, received news of the signing of the definitive treaty of peace with Great Britain, and welcomed the first foreign minister—from the Netherlands—accredited to the United States. The reason why Congress adjourned to Princeton is pretty interesting: they were mobbed at Independence Hall by a bunch of soldiers demanding payment for the Revolutionary War. Instead of paying them, Congress elected to move from town to town for the next few years.

6. The Maryland State House in Annapolis served a similar function from November 26, 1783 to August 13, 1784, and a couple of historic events took place here: George Washington resigned as commander in chief of the Continental Army, and the Articles of Confederation were ratified (although the latter was actually done a couple of years prior to Congress occupying the State House).

7. Trenton, N.J., would have been my choice of capitals just based on where the Congress of the Confederation held their meetings: the French Arms Tavern. But don't think that our early politicians were just slacking off an enjoying a pint or two "“ the building really was the most suitable based on its size. One historian called it "The handsomest and most commodious house in Trenton in its day." The handsomest and most commodious house in its day now houses a Wachovia Bank.

federal hall8. Federal Hall in New York City was home to Congress for a total of about four years. It's where Washington had his inauguration as the first President of the United States. In fact, when the First United States Congress met there in 1789, the first thing they did was tally the votes that would declare Washington Commander in Chief. In turn, Washington declared that a permanent housing solution for the frequently-traveling lawmakers was in order. You can still see Federal Hall to this day, by the way "“ it's on Wall Street and there's a big statue of George out in front. The Bible he was sworn in on is still there.

9. Washington, D.C. Finally, in 1790, the Residence Act was passed. This gave Washington the freedom to pick a spot for the permanent capital and allowed him to give builders 10 years to complete the job. He chose D.C. for its spot on the Potomac and to somewhat appease James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who wanted a more southern location for the capital than New York, which is where they had been meeting for several years prior.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.