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How Abraham Lincoln Argued a Murder Trial

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 or second installments of the series, check them out.

May 3, 1858. Cass County, Illinois.

The Circuit Court of Cass County convened on Monday May 3rd, 1858, to begin Armstrong’s trial. Abraham Lincoln arrived in Beardstown, the county seat and site of the courthouse, on Thursday the 6th, only to find that the star witness for the People, Charles Allen, was missing.

Lincoln asked around among Armstrong’s friends and discovered that they had made an agreement with Allen. He would stay at a hotel in the nearby town of Virginia for the duration of the trial and not testify. In exchange, Armstrong’s friends would pay his living expenses. Lincoln explained to them that if Allen didn’t appear, the case would be continued and Duff Armstrong would have to wait in jail for the trial to be rescheduled. Realizing their error, two of Armstrong’s cousins hitched up their wagon and went to retrieve Allen that night. The next morning, the trial began.

Hugh Fullerton, the State’s Attorney, prosecuted the case. A private attorney named Collier, who’d been employed by Metzker’s brother, assisted him. William Walker, the senior member of the firm of Walker & Lacey, who had defended Armstong’s friend Norris the year before, assisted Lincoln.

During the early parts of the trial Collier more or less had the run of the show as he offered what appeared to be a solid case. Lincoln only sparingly cross-examined Collier’s witnesses, called few of his own, and spoke up occasionally only to double-check a few dates and place names. That is, until Charles Allen took the stand.

Allen testified that he'd seen Armstrong strike Metzker with the blow that killed him. On cross-examination, Lincoln pressed Allen for more details. How far away had he been standing? About 150 feet from the victim. What time was it? Approximately 11:00 pm. How could he be sure the assailant was Armstrong if it was the middle of the night and he was a good distance away from the action? “By the light of the moon,” Allen testified. He said it had been shining high in the sky and provided more than enough light. Throughout his questioning, Lincoln kept going back to these details and had Allen repeat himself several times about the moon.

Lincoln purchased an 1857 almanac from a nearby drug store and asked that it be entered into evidence. The judge allowed it, and Lincoln turned to the almanac’s August calendar. He showed the jury the pages and explained that on the night of the assault, the moon was in the first quarter and had set at three minutes after midnight. At the time Metzker claimed to have seen the attack, 11:00 p.m., the moon would have been riding low on the horizon and not directly overhead. (It is popularly believed, probably because it's been dramatized over the years, that the almanac showed there was no moon that night. In reality, it simply showed that its position in the sky did not match Allen’s description.)

When Lincoln read the facts from the almanac, laughter rose from the spectators and even some of the jurors. The moon, low on the horizon an hour before setting, probably still could have provided enough light for Allen to see the assault, but Lincoln had shifted the jury's attention away from the moon’s brightness and to its location. In the process, he revealed Allen’s mistake on this, casting doubt on the witness' testimony.

A juror recalled years later that “the jury thought Allen was telling the truth. I know that he impressed me that way, but his evidence with reference to the moon was so far from the facts that it destroyed his evidence with the jury.”

Lincoln did not rely solely on the almanac to defend Armstrong, though. He also had a doctor testify that the blow Norris struck to the back of Metzker’s head could have caused the wound on the front. Lincoln also gave a full-on performance during his closing arguments. The day the attorneys made their final remarks, it was hot in the courthouse. As Lincoln rose from his chair to speak, he took off his coat, vest and necktie. As he talked and paced in front of the jury box, his home-made knitted suspenders slipped off of one shoulder, falling to the side, where Lincoln let it sway until he was finished talking. Looking like a backcountry bumpkin, Lincoln spoke at length about his relationship with the Armstrong family and how much they meant to him, going so far as to plead for the life of the son of his old friends.

The jury deliberated for one hour, took only one ballot and delivered a unanimous acquittal. After the verdict was delivered, Lincoln reportedly shook hands with Armstrong, led him to his mother, and told him to care for her and try to be as good a man as his father. Then, he walked out of the courthouse and went back home to prepare for his Senate campaign.

Check back tomorrow for the story's conclusion and the repercussions of the trial in Lincoln's political career.

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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
Original image
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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iStock
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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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