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18 Vintage Photos From Prohibition

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Americans are fascinated by prohibition, as evidenced by the success of shows like Boardwalk Empire and the many movies based on Al Capone. But for all the discussions and reenactments of the period, it’s still rare to actually look back on photos from the period. Here are a few scenes from the fight against alcohol, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Road to a Dry America

The American Temperance Society started all the way back in 1826—almost 100 years before national prohibition. Within the following years, more groups popped up, including the Prohibition Party, formed in 1869, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, which started in 1873, and the Anti-Saloon League of America, created in 1893.

After the Prohibition Party formed, they started trying to get a president elected in their name –just like all American political parties do. Here is a picture of their sixth convention, held in 1892 at the Cincinnati Music Hall. Interestingly, while the party is still around, the 1892 convention led to the group’s most successful presidential election ever, securing their candidate, John Bidwell, 270,770 votes.

The most successful of all temperance groups was the Anti-Saloon League of America, which at one point was the most powerful lobbying group in the country.

The group’s sixteenth convention took place in Atlantic City in 1915, which is fun to look at these days, given that the same location is now the setting for a massively popular show about bootlegging. To view the full panoramic image, go here.

Of course, for some campaigners, getting prohibition passed in America wasn’t enough. They wanted the whole world to go dry. One of the most famous international prohibitionists was W.E. “Pussyfoot” Johnson. Unfortunately for Johnson though, not everyone was so excited to ban alcohol, and when he went to speak in London in 1919, he was captured by a mob of students and had to be rescued by the police. Here he is returning to America afterwards; you can see a larger version here.

Johnson’s career started to wind down at that point. Only two years later, he was booed off stage at two different venues in Canada. Despite the intimidation he received in London and Canada, he continued to tour the world speaking about prohibition throughout the rest of the twenties and then retired from public life in 1930.

Politicians Taking Sides

While prohibition didn’t go into effect nationwide until 1920, many states had already outlawed alcohol within their borders. Indiana was one such state. In fact, Governor James Putnam Goodrich signed the act into law in 1917, captured forever in this image.

Of course, not everyone supported prohibition. These men made up the “Wet Block” of Congress, who worked to repeal the prohibition legislation as soon as it was passed.

While it is sometimes hard to illustrate a political position in one picture, Representative John Phillip Hill of Maryland did an excellent job of illustrating his intent to make America a wet country again.

Prohibition-supporter William D. Upshaw of Georgia had an easy enough time taking a photo rebuttal –he simply showed himself keeping the capital dry with the use of an umbrella. Upshaw was such a well-known supporter of temperance that he earned the nickname “the driest of the drys.” In 1932, he even ran as the presidential candidate for the Prohibition Party.

Playing Cat and Mouse

Before there were drug dogs, there were booze hounds, but not the kind you’re thinking of. These pooches were specially trained to sniff out alcohol, like the flask in this man’s back pocket. This image was more than likely set up and taken for the sake of news reporters, but the idea, thought up by Colorado probation agent Commissioner Haynes, was still quite ingenious.

Moonshiners developed some pretty clever tricks of their own though. These shoes were known as “cow shoes” because they would leave a series of footprints that looked like cow tracks, making it harder for prohibition agents to tell where bootleggers were going.

With stills occasionally being hidden in the middle of nowhere, like this one, you can easily see just how useful some cow shoes would be in trying to hide any trace of your illegal activities.

One of the most popular ways of getting good booze into the country was to sneak it in at night via boat. But not all rum-runners got away with it –here is one unfortunate crew being stopped by some very heavily-armed coast guards back in 1924.

A huge problem faced by prohibition officers though was the simple fact that people smuggling and drinking booze weren’t all big-time criminals or shady-looking street characters. In many cases, the people flouting prohibition were everyday, hard-working Americans who just wanted a drink or those who knew they could make a few extra bucks helping those who had a taste for the drink. In fact, these two sweet-looking Navy nurses were even arrested and tried for smuggling liquor into the country.

Accidents Waiting to Happen

While police preferred to catch bootleggers at their warehouses, all too often the arrests ended up involving car chases. Police chases are always dangerous, but because the vehicles involved lacked seat belts, power steering, anti-lock brakes and a variety of other safety features we take for granted, the results were often deadly.

This Stutz touring car was particularly poorly adapted for racing and the driver immediately passed away when the vehicle, traveling at seventy miles an hour, crashed into a tree. The liquor that wasn’t destroyed in the crash was seized as evidence.

Interestingly, it was these very car chases that led to the creation of stock car racing and, eventually, NASCAR. That’s because bootleggers knew they had to be able to escape the police, so they started modifying their vehicles to better maneuver and to achieve higher speeds. The drivers would deliberately bring the chase up dangerous, curvy mountain roads hoping the police wouldn’t be able to maneuver the deadly curves as well as they could. The best drivers with the best cars may have gotten killed in car accidents or arrested after a serious crash, but they never got caught by speedy officers like these gentlemen. But, to be fair, Washington D.C. is hardly the ideal place for a high-speed chase.

Taking it Off the Streets

Raids, like this one that took place in the basement of a popular Washington D.C. lunchroom, were a fairly common occurrence during prohibition.

Unsurprisingly, with all of these raids going on, the government ended up with quite a lot of extra booze in its hands, all of which was supposed to be destroyed. In some cases, local officials like Mayor W. Hurd Clendinen of Zion City, Illinois, would make the destruction into a public spectacle in order to feed the reporters news of great bootlegging successes.

Just as commonly though, the police would just dump out the booze in the sewer nearest the location of their bust.

Of course, unlike the booze, the stills had to be kept around for use as evidence later on. Here Lieutenant O.T. Davis, Sergeant J.D. McQuade, George Fowler of the IRS and H.G. Bauer posed with the biggest bootlegging still captured up until that point in 1922.
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In the end, we learned that even if the average American might have consumed a little less alcohol, the resulting proliferation of organized crime just wasn’t worth the handful of benefits achieved through prohibition. The “Noble Experiment” failed and the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed by the Twenty-first Amendment in 1933.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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