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Sam I Am: How a Butcher Became America’s Most Famous Face

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by Mark S. Longo

Mascots. You gotta love ’em. England has its bulldog, Canada has the beaver, and America … well, America has a New York meat packer. But you know him better as wacky, stilt-legged Uncle Sam. Allow us to explain.

Sam’s Club

Arguably America’s most famous eccentric relative, Uncle Sam is a fairly recent addition to our national consciousness. But that’s not to say the United States didn’t have its fair share of political personifications before Sam came along. Lady Liberty was one of the earliest. Usually depicted draped in a toga and donning an elaborate headdress, she represented the blending of classical ideals and new world spirit. Another early mascot, Brother Jonathan, served as the face of the common man. Appearing in countless political cartoons, plays, and novels, his character applied homespun wisdom, acerbic wit, and a generous dose of orneriness to both political issues and pop culture.

Then came Uncle Sam, the famous face of U.S. Army recruitment campaigns. And fittingly, he’s an icon born out of a military contract. During the War of 1812, a meat packer from Troy, N.Y., named Samuel Wilson won the right to supply beef to the American troops. Wilson, apparently more genial than your average butcher-slash-military contractor, was known to his neighbors as Uncle Sam.

So when soldiers from the Troy area started spotting barrels of meat stamped with the initials “U.S.,” they joked that the letters stood for Uncle Sam, rather than United States. Before long, even civilians were saying that “Uncle Sam was feeding the troops.” The phrase became common, and Sam-as-symbol made his debut in an 1838 political cartoon alongside Brother Jonathan. But, with his red stocking cap and conspicuously whisker-free face, ol’ “U.S.” didn’t look much like the poster-boy we know today.

Earning His Stripes (And Stars)

By the time the Civil War started, Uncle Sam had become representative of a united federal government. That meant he had more resonance in the Union than Brother Jonathan, who’d become more associated with individualism. Consequently, when the North won, so did Sam. In fact, over the course of the next two decades, Jonathan virtually disappeared from newspapers’ editorial pages.

With Uncle Sam’s new political symbolism came a new look. The nation desperate for leadership, he began to take on the characteristics of another famous icon, Abraham Lincoln. Interestingly, this transformation is widely credited to 19th-century illustrator Thomas Nast, who’s also responsible for our jolly, fat, red-suited image of Santa Claus as well as the use of the donkey and the elephant as political party symbols.

But Sam still had one last (extreme) makeover ahead of him. That came during World War I, when artist James Montgomery Flagg designed the famous “I want YOU” recruitment posters for the U.S. Army. In the process, he gave Uncle Sam a new face with a stern expression. That signature mug, ironically, was made in Flagg’s own image. In order to save the hassle and expense of hiring a model, Flagg decided to paint a self-portrait. The result was a national icon that’s truly a cross-section of America—incorporating the face of an artist, the style of a president, and the name of a New York meat packer.

I Want YOU (Sometimes)

When the U.S. Army first started using Uncle Sam during WWI, recruitment skyrocketed and morale on the home front soared. In fact, the image formed the bedrock of all military enlisting efforts from World War I to Korea. At the height of WWII, Uncle Sam even had his own comic book. But during the Vietnam era, the icon’s overtly patriotic appeal clashed with growing public cynicism over the war, and recruiters were forced to phase him out. For a brief time, he even became a popular symbol of the anti-war movement. However, by the time the Gulf War rolled around, Uncle Sam had once again regained his place as a stirring symbol of national pride.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. If you're in a subscribing mood, here are the details. Got an iPad? We also offer digital subscriptions through Zinio.

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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]