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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
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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]