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Fordlandia: Henry Ford's Ill-Fated Foray Into the Brazilian Jungle

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We remember Henry Ford as the automotive magnate who perfected assembly line technology, but he also dabbled in ambitious social programs, including one in which he hired ex-convicts straight out of Sing Sing to staff his factories. Although many of these efforts were successful, Ford's ill-fated foray into the Brazilian jungle was a notable and fascinating exception.

The Plan

If you're going to make millions of cars, you're going to need an awful lot of rubber. In 1927, Ford came up with a novel plan: he'd solve his rubber problem and test out his lofty theories about social planning. If everything went well, he could craft both a utopia full of healthy, productive workers and a direct pipeline of coveted rubber to Detroit.


Ford approached the task with characteristic zeal. He talked the Brazilian government into granting him 10,000 square kilometers of land in the Amazon rainforest "“ a plot that was nearly twice as big as the state of Delaware - in exchange for a nine-percent cut of the plantation's profits. In theory, this setup seemed like one of Ford's ideas that would shake out pretty well, and in 1928, Ford sent a barge full of supplies from Michigan down to his new plantation town, which was dubbed "Fordlandia."

Growing Rubber in the Jungle

Unfortunately for Ford's stockholders, though, the captain of industry didn't always have a great eye for detail. (One famous story about Ford was that he disliked accountants so fiercely that he never had his company audited. By the end of his tenure, the Ford Motor Company allegedly had no idea exactly how much it cost to build a car.) Ford didn't check to see if the plantation was suitable for growing rubber. According to Greg Grandin, author of Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City, Ford never consulted any sort of expert on rubber cultivation; he just sent a bunch of supplies and managers into the jungle hoping to grow some rubber.

fordlandia-sawmill

Ford was legendarily contemptuous of experts, but he could have saved some serious dough if he'd just hired a consultant to tell him that the plantation wasn't at all suitable for growing rubber. The land wasn't very fertile, but that wasn't the main problem. The real difficulty was that it's practically impossible to farm rubber in a plantation setting in the Amazon rainforest. To grow the trees on a commercial scale, you've got to pack them in fairly close together, and at that point they become incredibly susceptible to blight and insect attacks. Fordlandia's trees were no exception, and caterpillars and blight quickly decimated the fields. [Images courtesy of Fordlandia.com.]

Not Exactly a Worker's Paradise

Obviously, the rubber-production part of the Fordlandia got off to a rocky start. How was the "worker's paradise" part of things going, though? Even more abysmally. The American managers and their families that Ford imported from Michigan weren't accustomed to the sweltering Brazilian heat and headed back north with an alarming frequency. The heavy machinery used on the plantation left deep ruts in the soft soil, which collected stagnant water and became breeding grounds for malaria-ridden mosquitoes.

Ford had attempted to design Fordlandia like any American town, complete with schools, restaurants, a golf course, and shops. The catch here, though, was that the indigenous Brazilians who farmed the rubber weren't used to living in a stylized American community. Worse still, the plantation's workers were expected to work a strict shift from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., whereas normal harvesting practices in the region saw workers hit the fields before dawn, take a long break, and then head out again at twilight to save themselves the misery of working in the tropical midday heat.

Food Fights

Worse still, Ford's influence extended all the way down to the residents' diets, and while the indigenous workers weren't crazy about having to eat American foods, they were livid about having to eat in a cafeteria setting rather than enjoying the homestyle meals to which they were accustomed. Eventually, the workers decided they'd had enough of the affront of cafeteria dining and rioted during a meal.

As the American managers fled to the safety of boats, the workers destroyed their mess hall and continued to riot until Brazilian soldiers came in to suppress violence.

Another sticking point for the workers was Ford's insistence that his model community be entirely free of alcohol and tobacco. Although Prohibition wasn't exactly an unqualified success at home, and although alcohol was still legal in Brazil, Ford stayed firm on his booze ban. Workers who needed a drink were forced just outside the city limits to buy a bottle of cachaca; enterprising liquor salesman could simply paddle by on the river and unload their wares.

End of the Road

Eventually, even though Henry Ford steadfastly insisted that the community could thrive and help introduce American-style industrialization to the rest of the world, it became abundantly clear that the noble Fordlandia experiment was a flop. After the perfection of synthetic rubber in 1945, Ford sold the plantation at a $20 million loss and left Brazil.

Just how much of a fiasco was the Fordlandia experiment? Although Ford spent 17 years trying to produce rubber on the plantation, no Ford car ever rolled off the assembly line with a single bit of Fordlandia's rubber in it.

Note: Server migration week continues, so forgive us for reposting a few oldies/goodies. This article was originally published in 2009.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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