CLOSE
Original image
Getty Images

Invade Canada! A Brief History of the War of 1812

Original image
Getty Images

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.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Library of Congress
war
arrow
10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
Original image
Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES