Abraham Lincoln: Amazing Wrestler

This week we're running a series of posts by Matt Soniak about Abraham Lincoln's foray into forensic meteorology. If you missed the first installment yesterday, check it out.

In the summer of 1831, 22-year-old Abraham Lincoln arrived in New Salem, a small town along the Sangamon River in Menard County, Illinois. He had come there to work as a clerk for a man named Offut, a local store owner.

Offut liked Lincoln and tended to brag about the new clerk to his customers, claiming Lincoln could outrun or outfight any man in the county. Bill Clary, whose family was the namesake of a settlement southwest of town called Clary's Grove, was skeptical of Offut’s boasts. Clary’s Grove was known for a group of young toughs led by Jack Armstrong. Historian Benjamin Thomas called the Clary’s Grove Boys a “rough and boisterous, happy-go-lucky crowd” that “came to New Salem to drink, gossip, trade and play. Physical strength and courage were their ideals. In individual and free-for-all fights they had demonstrated their superiority over the boys from other settlements, and they ruled the town when they chose to.” Bill Clary figured that Lincoln couldn’t whip any of his boys, and certainly not Armstrong. Tired of Offut’s big talk, he told the shopkeeper to put his money where his mouth was and bet ten dollars that Jack Armstrong would prove to be “a better man than Lincoln” in a wrestling match.

Lincoln didn’t want to take part in the match, but he eventually gave in to Offut’s protests. The match took place in front of Offut’s store, and all of New Salem came out to watch and bet money, whiskey, knives and other property on the winner.

Most bettors backed Armstrong, but it was only a few minutes into the match when, according to attorney John T. Stuart, who was there to see the contest, Armstrong realized “he had got hold of the wrong customer.” The two young men wrestled hard, doing their best to throw the other, but both remained on their feet. Convinced he couldn’t throw Lincoln fairly, Armstrong tried to “foul” the clerk. The attempt at cheating enraged Lincoln and, putting his height and long arms to good use, he grabbed Armstrong by the throat, lifted him off the ground, and shook him out like a wet rag.

The rest of the Clary’s Grove Boys reportedly rushed Lincoln, kicking and punching his legs and torso in an effort to knock him down. Lincoln took the assault in stride, holding his ground and laughing as he was kicked. Eventually, everyone settled down. The boys stopped kicking and Lincoln let Armstrong go. The two men shook hands, Lincoln having proved to everyone in town that he had to courage and strength to “belong” in town. Armstrong later called Lincoln “the best fellow who ever broke into camp.” Many Lincoln historians have called the ordeal one of the defining moments of Lincoln’s life.

Lincoln soon became close friends with Armstrong and his wife, Hannah. He often stayed at their home, where he split rails, helped the Clary’s Grove farmers with their work and even studied surveying so he could establish the lines of their lands.

When Lincoln heard about Duff's legal troubles from Hannah, he reached out to her. Despite the fact that he was busy preparing for his Senate campaign against Steven Douglas – and the fact that he was not well-practiced in criminal law, and had lost half of his one dozen murder trials – he offered to take Armstrong’s case pro bono.

He wrote to Hannah:

“Dear Mrs. Armstrong,

I have just heard of your deep affliction, and the arrest of your son for murder. I can hardly believe that he can be guilty of the crime alleged against him. It does not seem possible. I am anxious that he should have a fair trial, at any rate; and gratitude for your long continued kindness to me in adverse circumstances prompts me to offer my humble services gratuitously in his behalf. It will afford me an opportunity to requite, in a small degree, the favors I received at your hand, and that of your lamented husband, when your roof afforded me grateful shelter without money and without price.

Yours truly,

Abraham Lincoln.

Hannah Armstrong drove to Springfield to consult Lincoln and see if he could get Duff out on bail before his trial. Lincoln tried, but could not secure his friend's release. Lincoln and Mrs. Armstrong went to the county jail to see Duff and tell him he’d have to sit tight until his trial started the next spring. There, Mrs. Armstrong met Duff’s cellmate, a former schoolteacher serving a sentence for larceny. He proposed to her that if she bought him a new pair of glasses and some books to pass his time, he would teach Duff how to read while he awaited trial. Mrs. Armstrong agreed, and the following May, a literate Duff Armstrong left the county lockup to be put on trial.

Check back tomorrow to hear about Lincoln's clever trial strategy.

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]