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Lost States: Muskogee

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We're thrilled to welcome a special guest blogger, the author of Lost States: True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States That Never Made It. He'll be sharing tales from his book with us this week. Put your hands together for Mike Trinklein!

Muskogee: Real Pirates of the Caribbean.
More Implausible Than the Movie, If That's Possible.

The big mystery about the Muskogee story is why it hasn't been made into a big budget movie starring Johnny Depp.

Here's a true story of a guy who gets kicked out of the United States military, joins a Creek tribe, marries the chief's daughter, consolidates several Native American nations, becomes their king, rallies the native people against an evil empire, gets captured and thrown into a Spanish prison, escapes, takes over a British ship, becomes a pirate—and there's more.

Leading a ragtag force of sixty men, our hero takes over a Spanish fort. A huge Spanish force is dispatched to capture him, but they get lost. Eventually, after a series of battles, he is betrayed, captured by the enemy, and dies in a castle dungeon in Havana.

And I didn't even get to the part where he worked as a comic actor and portrait painter.

I realize this tale strains credulity, but it's the real life story of an American named William Augustus Bowles. In the midst of his adventures, Bowles also created a new nation-state named Muskogee, in the general area around what is now Tallahassee, Florida. His state had a capital, government bureaucrats, even its own navy. But the boundaries are hard to define, so it's not clear how far Bowles' influence extended. Nonetheless, I'm sure Bowles would consider his state much bigger than the map portrays.

The United States did not recognize Bowles' statehood claim—he was never considered much more than a nuisance by the American government. He was a bigger problem for Spain, since Bowles' main theater of operation (Florida) was Spanish territory at the time.

Despite his rock star charisma, Bowles never really had the resources to match his dreams. Even though Muskogee eventually collapsed, it could be argued that Bowles did succeed at bringing another state (namely, Florida) into the Union. The fact that the Spanish military was unable to stop this guy—for years—illustrated just how weak the Spanish were in Florida. U.S. leaders noticed Spain's ineptitude, and made an offensive move to invade the territory in 1812. Before long, Florida was American soil, and the Caribbean pirates were expelled (except for a small enclave near Orlando).

[Previous Entries: Montezuma, Texlahoma]

You can pick up Mike's book on Amazon. And if you can't wait for tomorrow's excerpt, check out the Lost States blog.

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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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