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How a Motley Crew of Counterfeiters Saved George Washington

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Henry Dawkins was always a bit of a scoundrel. In the spring of 1776, he finished a long prison tenure and was let back onto the streets. Although free, he was not a changed man. Dawkins continued committing crimes. His knack for law breaking, however, inadvertently saved the USA.

After leaving prison, the ex-con rented a room on Long Island. He told his landlords, Isaac and Israel Youngs, that he was going to start a printing business. (He left out what he’d be printing—counterfeit money.) The brothers loaned Dawkins some dough for a printing press. Dawkins bought the machine under a fake name and hid it in the Youngs’ attic. In mid-May, Dawkins asked his friend Isaac Ketcham to buy rolls of currency paper. Ketcham purchased the paper, and a suspicious salesman reported him to the authorities. Days later, Dawkins was back behind bars. This time, Ketcham and the Youngs brothers were with him.

Ketcham was assigned to a cell brimming with loyalists—Americans who supported the monarchy. Ketcham befriended some of the Tories and eavesdropped on their conversations. The prisoners treated him to the freshest British intelligence, and he learned about multiple plots to capture Manhattan.

Ketcham was desperate to get out of jail, and he knew that digging up dirt on the Brits could be his ticket out. He secretly petitioned the Provincial Congress—the same people who convicted him—and asked to be freed. “I…have something to [tell] to the hounorable house,” he said. “It is nothing concerning my own affair, but entirely on another subject.”

Congress took the hint. Ketcham was quickly called in for questioning, but was sent right back to jail. This time, however, he wasn’t there as a prisoner. He was now a spy.

Inside Info

On June 16, two soldiers, Michael Lynch and Thomas Hickey, had been placed in Ketcham’s cell for counterfeiting. Both men were George Washington’s bodyguards. The duo asked Ketcham and Israel Youngs why they were in jail. The two spun a yarn about being diehard loyalists, and Lynch and Hickey began boasting that they secretly enlisted in the King’s army. They said the Royal Navy was soon going to invade New York, and American defectors like themselves were going to blow up Kings Bridge—the only route to mainland. Other traitors would raid munitions stocks and destroy American supply depots. Washington and his 20,000 troops would be trapped on Manhattan Island, surrounded by Royal navy men and loyalists. A bloodbath was inevitable.

The next morning, Ketcham wrote again to the Provincial Congress. “I have (last night) received intelligence from Israel Youngs that he discovered a plan from whence he did not expect it…he is not willing to explain it to any other person but your Honour. Sir, as to my own liberty, I think I have clearly earned it.”

The Provincial Congress acted quickly. On June 22, a witch-hunt ensued, and every known conspirator was caught. Hickey confessed that eight of Washington’s trusty bodyguards were Tories, and they were just days away from kidnapping the famous General.

Making an Example

The news made Washington furious. He targeted his old bodyguard, Thomas Hickey, and made an example out of him for all traitors. Hickey was court-martialed on June 26, and three of his fellow conspirators were forced to testify against him. The court charged Hickey with “mutiny, sedition, and treachery,” and decided that he must “suffer death for said crimes by being hanged by the neck till he is dead.”

Two days later, a crowd of 20,000 people gathered around a wooden scaffold near New York’s Bowery. Hickey was slowly escorted to the gallows by 200 Continental soldiers. At 11:00am, the noose tightened its grip, and Hickey became the first American executed for treason.

Washington warned his men: “[I hope this] will be a warning to every soldier in the army to avoid those crimes and all others, so disgraceful to the character of a soldier, and pernicious to his country, whose pay he receives and bread he eats.”

Two months later, Ketcham and the motley crew of counterfeiters were pardoned.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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