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Invade Canada! A Brief History of the War of 1812

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Two centuries ago, the U.S. declared war on Britain, and invaded its closest colony. Why was the War of 1812 fought, and who really won?

War of 1812 Re-enactors/

Who started the war?

The United States was the first to declare war, though after repeated British provocations. At the time, the Napoleonic wars were raging across Europe, and the Royal Navy had taken to seizing American sailors at sea and press-ganging them into their undermanned fleet. Already infuriated by British attempts to prevent the U.S. from trading with France, President James Madison and the so-called War Hawks in Congress urged the country to go to war and defend its recently won independence. But the June 1812 vote to go to war only narrowly passed the House and the Senate, and critics condemned "Mr. Madison's War" as a foolhardy adventure, motivated less by crimes at sea than by a lust for land. Indeed, the American offensive began with a land invasion of Canada.

Why invade Canada?

It was the closest British colony, but Madison also had political reasons for targeting America's northern neighbor.

His Democratic-Republican Party drew much of its support from the rural South and what was then the American West — the territory stretching up the Mississippi basin to the Great Lakes. Frontier inhabitants were eager to strike at the British in Canada because they suspected them of arming Native American tribes that were standing in the way of America's westward expansion. Many Americans also believed that the invasion would be a cakewalk, and that ordinary Canadians were keen to shake off their British overlords. The "acquisition of Canada," predicted former President Thomas Jefferson, "will be a mere matter of marching."

How did the invasion go?

Terribly. At the outbreak of hostilities, the U.S. Army was a poorly equipped force of fewer than 7,000 men, many of them "complete amateurs with virtually no training or discipline," said historian Alan Taylor. It didn't help that the initial offensive was led by the aging Gen. William Hull, later damned by a subordinate as an "imbesile" [sic]. After an abortive foray across the Detroit River into Canada, Hull fell for a bogus report that a vast Indian war party was heading his way and surrendered his 2,500 troops to a much smaller force. With the war only a few months old, the entire Michigan territory had fallen into British hands.

Did the U.S. have any victories?

Yes — strangely enough, at sea. In 1812 and 1813, the tiny U.S. Navy bested the supposedly invincible British fleet in a series of duels on the Great Lakes and in the Atlantic. "It is a cruel mortification to be beat by these secondhand Englishmen upon our own element," a British minister declared. But in 1814, Britain decided to teach the upstarts a lesson, and launched a counteroffensive along the mid-Atlantic coast, overwhelming small American gunboats. Some 4,000 Royal Marines marched into Washington, which American officials had abandoned so hastily that an uneaten banquet for 40 was left laid out in the White House. The Marines downed the food and wine before torching the White House and the Capitol building — vengeance for the earlier American ransacking of York (now Toronto). But the British offensive stalled outside Baltimore, where a small American garrison at Fort McHenry withstood a 25-hour naval bombardment — a sight that inspired a young lawyer, Francis Scott Key, to scribble out the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner" on the back of a letter.

How did the war end?

It was essentially a stalemate. By late 1814, the U.S. government was almost bankrupt because of the expense of the conflict, while Britain wanted to end what it regarded as a sideshow to the larger war against Napoleon. So on Christmas Eve, 1814, the two sides signed a peace treaty in Ghent (now in Belgium) that restored the prewar borders of the U.S. and Canada, without even mentioning the maritime issues that had started the conflict. But news of the peace deal didn't reach the 5,000 British troops gathered outside New Orleans in time. They attacked the city on Jan. 8, 1815, but were easily repulsed by some 4,000 defenders led by Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson. By the end of the day, the British had lost 291 men, the Americans only 13. The military triumph restored U.S. pride, and Jackson was hailed as a national hero.

What was the war's legacy?

Everyone declared victory. Canadians could celebrate that they had repelled an invasion, an achievement that united them in a new sense of nationhood. "We were refugees, American loyalists, British soldiers, First Nations, a mixed bag of people who realized they had a common land to defend," said Thom Sokoloski, a Canadian artist who organized a recent 1812 art exhibit in Toronto. For America, meanwhile, the late victory at the Battle of New Orleans was a major morale booster. "The war had become a glorious re-declaration of independence," said historian James Lundberg. "Its missteps were forgotten, and a new generation of national heroes was born — Andrew Jackson first among them." The only real losers were Native Americans. Ravaged by the conflict and abandoned by their British allies, the tribes along the frontier would soon be outnumbered and pushed aside by a wave of American settlers.

The Americans are coming!

The War of 1812 produced its own Paul Revere, except this folk hero was a woman who served the British. On the evening of June 21, 1813, Laura Secord overheard American officers billeted at her home, in Queenston, Ontario, plotting a raid on a nearby British outpost. The 37-year-old mother of five hiked for 18 hours through mosquito-infested swamps and forests to reach the redcoats' camp. Armed with her information, the British and their Indian allies were able to ambush the American force, capturing 462 soldiers. Secord received no recognition or compensation for her part in the victory until 1860, when the Prince of Wales stopped in Queenston to pay tribute to the veterans of 1812. Told of Secord's heroism, he awarded the then 85-year-old 100 pounds as thanks for her bravery.

Every so often, we'll reprint something from our sister publication, The Week. This is one of those times.

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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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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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