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Democracy on the High Seas: How Pirates Rocked the Vote

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by Alisson Clark

Sure, they did their fair share of burning and looting. But who knew pirates were ahead of our Founding Fathers when it came to good governance?

Everyone knows that swashbuckling types aren't exactly known for obeying the rules. But years before the United States gained its independence, democracy was actually thriving aboard pirate ships. Perhaps that's because they reasoned that a little law and order was better than the alternative. Crammed aboard a ship with 300 unruly sailors, pirates were quick to adopt a government rather than let anarchy ensue.

Democracy Now
Of course, why they chose democracy as their form of government is another matter. As it turns out, buccaneers were leery of absolute authority. Many were escaped slaves or indentured servants who'd suffered under the tyranny of plantation owners in the Caribbean. Others had served under iron-fisted ship captains, who were rarely held accountable for their abuses of power. So, pirates settled on a form of government that recognized the individual without putting too much control in any one person's hands—democracy.

For a mob of mostly illiterate seadogs, their concepts of governing were pretty evolved. Typically, they divided authority into three branches, complete with checks and balances. The captain, who only ruled absolutely in times of battle, was the executive branch; the quartermaster, who arbitrated disagreements and doled out punishments, was the judiciary; and the entire crew served as the legislature, voting on matters of importance, such as when to attack other vessels and when to elect a new captain.

Another surprise? The crew could be more merciful than you'd expect. Once captains were voted out of office, they could be left at port or deposited on a deserted island. But they could also be reintegrated into the crew. One deposed captain, Howell Davis of the Buck, was downright poetic about being ousted: "I find by strengthening you, I have put a rod into your hands to whip my self," he told the new captain, "but since we met in Love, let us part in Love."

The Benefits Package
Government wasn't the only area in which pirates were ahead of the curve. They also had worker's compensation plans. Many ships' charters gave pirates enough gold to last a lifetime if they sustained a career-ending injury. In his 1678 memoir, buccaneer Alexander Exquemelin, who sailed with the real Captain Morgan, detailed the sums guaranteed to swashbucklers who lost eyes, fingers, or limbs in battle. A lost right arm was worth the most—600 pieces of eight—which is equivalent to more than $100,000 today.

Although pirates governed themselves with an egalitarian spirit, it may be a while before we see a parade or White House ceremony in their honor. There's no evidence that the Founding Fathers looked to pirates as inspiration for their democratic ideas. That said, pirates did nurture American democracy. They sold food and supplies to the colonies when European powers couldn't (or wouldn't). And they often pumped their profits right back into the local economy, spending it on booze, gambling, and "entertainment." According to some sources, if it weren't for these rowdy ruffians, some colonies might not have survived to become cradles of democracy.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. If you didn't get what you wanted this holiday season, and what you wanted was a subscription to mental_floss magazine, here's where you can order one yourself.

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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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