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Lost States: Cuba?

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We're thrilled to welcome Mike Trinklein, the author of Lost States: True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States That Never Made It. He's been sharing tales from his book all week. Come back tomorrow for a chance to win a copy!

Cuba: A Serious Proposal That Might Have Saved Civilization

It might seem ludicrous to claim that a proposal to make Cuba into a state had the potential to save the earth—but it's true.

In case you aren't old enough to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, here's a primer: The Soviet Union decided to park some nuclear missiles in Cuba and point them at U.S. cities. This was bad—because they could blast the U.S. into the stone age before America had a chance to return the favor.

Politicians call this type of thing "destabilizing," but for many Americans, a better word was "panic." All-out nuclear war seemed very possible.

Thankfully, President Kennedy deftly defused the situation, and the Soviets removed their missiles from Cuba. Everyone exhaled.

But we wouldn't have come to the brink of annihilation if an earlier statehood proposal had taken root. Specifically, a few decades earlier, many influential Americans suggested making Cuba a state.

In fact, the idea goes back to 1898 and the end of the Spanish-American War. Spain surrendered that summer, and agreed to relinquish the islands of Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, and Cuba. The United States took possession of the first three, but decided to give Cuba its independence (although we did keep Guantanamo). Nationhood went well for a few years, but when the Cuban president decided to overstay his term, there was revolt and turmoil across the island. Many in the U.S. Congress saw annexation as a way to solve that problem. The New York Times polled a number of influential politicians, and found many in favor. Opposing statehood were politicians like Representative John Sharp Williams of Mississippi who said, "we have enough people of the Negro race."

Even then, Cuba's proximity to the United States was understood as important to America's national defense. (Cuba is so close to Florida that certain Olympians could actually swim from one coast to the other). Nonetheless, it appears racism was the primary reason Cuba did not enter the Union in 1902.

And that brings us to 1962. If Cuba had been American soil, there would have been no Cuban Missile Crisis—one less near-death experience for the planet.

Today, in the post-Castro world, statehood has been raised once again. A 1998 Time article makes a compelling case—Cuba has great beaches, and lots of pent-up consumer demand. The idea actually has a lot of support in the American business community.

And just imagine a Major League Baseball franchise in Havana.




[Previous Entries: Montezuma, Texlahoma, Muskogee]


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
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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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May 23, 2017
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