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11 Things That Happened on Other Cool Dates

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11/22/11 is the 791st anniversary of Frederick II being crowned Holy Roman Emperor, the 293rd anniversary of Blackbeard’s beheading, the 254th anniversary of the Austrian defeat of Prussia in the Seven Years’ War’s Battle of Breslau, the 48th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and what would have been novelist George Eliot’s 192nd birthday. (Also: Toy Story turns 16 today.)

So many distinctions and yet 11/22/11 may only be the second coolest date in the last 11 days. But its proximity to the ever-so-flossy 11/11/11 should not keep us from celebrating its place among history’s very fun numerical dates. In honor of its coolness, here are some things that happened on other fun dates in history.

1. 7/8/9 (July 8, 1709): The Russians defeated the Swedes in the Battle of Poltava.

“But, why were they fighting?” you ask. Well, it was a part of the Great Northern War in which Tsar Peter the Great’s Russia and his allies in Denmark-Norway, Saxony, and Poland-Lithuania challenged the supremacy of the Swedish Empire. Russia’s decisive victory at Poltava (in modern-day Ukraine) pretty much sealed the deal establishing Russia as a major power in that part of the world and sending the Swedish Empire, under their teenage leader Karl XII, into a power decline. As you know, the date also explains very clearly why 6 was so very afraid of 7.

2. 3/3/3 (March 3, 1803) The first impeachment trial for a federal judge began.

Then-Chief Justice of the New Hampshire Superior Court of Judicature, John Pickering has the proud distinction of being the first United States federal official to be removed from office after conviction by impeachment. Basically, he just stopped showing up to court and many contended that he had simply gone bonkers.

After a bit of a political debate regarding the constitutionality of the removal of a federal official for something not considered a high crime or misdemeanor, then-Prez TJ sent evidence to the House of Representatives of Pickering’s drunkenness and unlawful rulings and they voted to impeach. The Senate voted to convict. And that was that.

3. 1/2/3 (January 2, 1903): Teddy Roosevelt shut down a Mississippi Post Office.

President Theodore Roosevelt shut down the post office in Indianola, Mississippi, for its racially motivated mistreatment of black postmistress, Minnie Cox. Racist politicians pointed to Cox’s position as evidence that blacks had attained too much power and demanded her removal. The postmistress was also threatened with violence and local law enforcement refused to provide appropriate protection. Fearing for her safety, she resigned her position and left town. The next day, the President closed down the post office, declined Ms. Cox’s resignation and continued her salary. Indianola residents were told that their mail could be collected at the Greenville post office 30 miles away.

Though Roosevelt could not keep the post office closed because the county was entitled to one by statute and though Cox did not accept the reappointment, it was still a pretty cool move by Teddy.

4. 11/11/11 (November 11, 1811): Cartagena, Colombia, declared its independence, the first Colombian province to do so.

The colonial city was established in 1533 by Pedro de Heredia and was named for a town in Spain from which many of his sailors had come. After existing under Spanish rule for 275 years, on 11/11/1811, Cartagena became independent of Spanish rule and now, as a beach resort city, is a popular tourist destination and center of economic activity in Columbia.

Every 11/11, Cartagena’s independence is celebrated with parades and dance performances. The central event of the day is the crowning of the queen of the Concurso Nacional de Belleza (national beauty contest) in which the two most important moments are the Desfile de Balleneras, where the contestants and their entourages parade their good looks via yachts and sailboats around the Bay of Cartegena, and when the bathing-suit-clad contestants parade around the pool at the Hilton. If you were not in Cartegena on 11/11, I am not sure why not.

5. 12/12/12 (December 12, 1812): The French invasion of Russia came to an end.

A major turning point in the Napoleonic Wars, the Little Corporal’s invasion of Russia was a pretty costly move, reducing his army to a small fraction of its size prior to the invasion. He could have quit while he was ahead with basically all of Europe under either his direct or indirect control. But, noooooo. He had to go and invade Russia because Tsar Alexander wouldn’t buy into the whole Napoleonic economic system.

The French armies were not prepared for the different and less agriculturally-rich Russian landscape and, in the course of the invasion, Napoleon’s Grande Armee became not nearly as grande. They lost more soldiers to desertion, starvation, and disease than they lost in actual battles with the Russians.

6. 1/1/1 (January 1, 1901): Australia became a commonwealth.

Previously six separate colonies, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia became states united under a federal government and began operating under the Constitution of Australia. The federation of Australia, as this process become known, also lends its name to a type of architecture that was popular during the time. As we all, of course, know, Federation architecture is similar to Edwardian architecture but stands out because of the use of verandah and images of distinctly Aussie plants and animals (yes, kangaroos and kookaburra included).

7. 8/8/8 (August 8, 1908): A Wright Brother proved the French wrong.

Wilbur Wright made his first public flight at the Hunaudieres racecourse near Le Mans, France. Prior to the public display, the press was openly skeptical about the Wright Brothers’ claim of having flown. One newspaper stated of the brothers, “They are in fact either flyers or liars. It is difficult to fly. It is easy to say, ‘We have flown.’” Well, Wibur proved to be a flier, indeed, as his first flight lasted one minute and 45 seconds and featured crafty turns and maneuvers that the public had not thought possible. The crowd went wild, headlines were made, and skeptics were silenced.

8. 8/9/10 (August 9, 1910): The washing machine was patented.

Alva Fisher patented the Thor washing machine, the first electric clothes washer sold commercially in the United States. Produced by the Hurley Electric Laundry Equipment Company of Chicago, the Thor was mass marketed throughout the country starting in 1908 and was a major leap ahead from crude early attempts at an automatic washer that usually involved the use of a crank. There is controversy over whether or not Fisher “invented” the automatic washing machine. A different company out of New York, Nineteen Hundred Washing Machine Company, says they invented the electric washing machine in 1906 and some claim that a Ford Motor Company employee invented the electric washer even earlier than that. Regardless, Fisher’s patent is a matter verified by official record and the mighty Thors were certainly the first washers to reach the thunderstruck public, en masse.

9. 11/11/11 (November 11, 1911): Lots of weather craziness went down.

In the Midwest, as many cities broke their record high and low temperatures on the same day. Springfield, Missouri, for example, recorded a temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit during the day before dropping to 13 degrees before midnight – a 67-degree drop in 10 hours. In some cities, there were tornadoes on 11/11 followed by blizzards on 11/12. Some folks call that cold snap that impacted the central part of the U.S. “The Great Blue Norther of 11/11/11,” some just call it straight-up, unadulterated meteorological wackiness.

10. 2/2/2 (February 2, 2002): A Prince married an investment banker.

The scandalous marriage between Crown Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and Argentine-born NY investment banker Maxima Zorreguieta Cerruti occurred on 2/2/2. The controversy surrounding the marriage was unrelated to her involvement with the bulls and the bears — rather, it was regarding her father’s prior role as Argentina’s Minister of Agriculture from 1976-1981 under the military dictatorship. During that time, between 10,000 and 30,000 people just up and disappeared (and are presumed dead), but Maxima’s father insists he was not aware of the government’s actions. The Dutch Parliament conducted an inquiry and verified that the prince’s father-in-law-to-be was being truthful. However, remaining pressure from the public prevented Maxima’s father from attending the wedding.

By the way, the couple met in Spain in 1999 at the Seville Spring Fair. The prince introduced himself simply as “Alexander” and did not tell Maxima that he was a prince until later. She thought he was joking.

11. 10/10/10 (October 10, 2010): The Netherlands Antilles were dissolved.

So, the Netherlands Antilles used to be an autonomous Caribbean country that was a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. It was made up of Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, Sint Eustatius, Saba, Sint Maarten, and two other groups of small islands. Aruba became a separate country under the Kingdom of the Netherlands umbrella in 1986 and sparked a lengthy series of referendums for the rest of the Antilles, who had to decide whether they wanted to have closer ties with the Netherlands, autonomy within the Netherlands kingdom, independence, or maintenance of the status quo.

After a speedy 24 years of deliberations, the Netherlands Antilles were dissolved in 2010. Curacao and Sint Maarten became constituent countries within the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the other islands became “special municipalities.” If we have any readers in said special municipalities who can explain what that term means, we'd love to hear from you.

I'm a sucker for "what ______ was almost called" trivia, from movies to books to search engines. So leave us your favorite almost-names in the comments!

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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
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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iStock
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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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