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The Quick 10: Billy the Kid

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Today's the day Billy the Kid bit the dust 129 years ago. Whether you think he was a misunderstood old West hero or nothing but a cold-blooded killer, the guy was quite interesting, and here are 10 facts to prove it.

1. His real name? Henry McCarty. Or maybe William Bonney. Or Henry Antrim. Take your pick. He was born Henry McCarty, but there's some speculation that his dad may have been a man named William Bonney. Billy the Kid started using his name at some point in 1877. Antrim was his step-father's last name - he went by that for some time as well.
2. Had fortunes worked out differently, he likely would have been raised in Ireland and would have never become one of America's best-known Wild West figures. His mom, Catherine McCarty, is thought to have survived the Great Irish Famine. Sadly, she died of tuberculosis when Billy was just a young teenager. Neighbors who owned a hotel took him in and he worked to earn his keep.

3. He wasn't always engaging in illegal activities and shooting people - he once worked at a cheese factory. At least, he did according to one source. Charlie Bowdre, a man who would later be in Billy's posse, was part owner of the cheese factory. Bowdre's descendants have said this is where the two of them met, although his employ was pretty short.

4. You may have heard the legend that Billy killed 21 people - one for each year of his rather short life. It's just that - legend. We only have evidence that Billy killed four people, two of them prison guards. He may have "participated" in the deaths of up to five more people.

5. He was a voracious reader. According to some early biographers, his love of dime store novels that made crime seem glamorous and profitable is the reason why he turned to a life in that field. Seems a bit far-fetched - other biographers contend that he was basically a good guy who got involved with the wrong crowd.

6. Contrary to popular belief, he probably wasn't left-handed. The reason this notion became widespread is because of the famous ferrotype of him that shows him wearing a gun belt with the holster on the left side. It was later discovered that the image has been reproduced incorrectly and flipped to show the mirror image of what really was. The picture actually shows Billy with his gun on his right hip.

7. Billy narrowly escaped death many times, but he had an especially close call in 1880. He was chatting with a fellow named Joe Grant, and when he turned to leave the saloon, he heard Grant's gun click. Either the cartridge was defective or the chamber was empty, but either way, it was Grant's undoing. Billy didn't wait for Grant to try again - he turned and killed Grant before he was killed himself.

8. Many people - including some claiming to be Billy himself - have said Billy didn't actually die. The story is that Sheriff Garrett helped him fake his death and happily ride off into the sunset. No evidence has ever been found to support this, though - it's just one of the enduring legends that surrounds Billy.

9. Men claiming to be Billy include "Brushy Bill" Roberts and a man named John Miller. Brushy Bill started claiming to be Billy the Kid in 1949 and knew quite a few intimate details about Billy's life and the Lincoln Country War. But there were several gunfights he was pretty clueless about, and photo comparisons using sophisticated computer programs show the men to have completely different bone structure and other features. As for John Miller, his claims were basically put to rest in 2005 when his bones were disinterred and DNA samples were taken. They were compared to a blood sample thought to be Billy the Kid's and there was no match. The only hitch, of course, is that we only think they had Billy the Kid's blood. I guess that leaves the window open for Young Guns III,, huh?

10. He's buried in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, with two members of his gang Tom O'Folliard and Charlie Bowdre. The epitaph says "Pals." It's a popular target for thieves and has been stolen (and recovered) three times since it was erected in the 1940s.

What do you think? Did Billy really die at the hands of Pat Garrett? Was he just a nice kid who was the victim of some unfortunate circumstances? Let us know in the comments.

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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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