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How the Presidency Sort of, Maybe, Almost Might Have Gotten Cursed

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William Henry Harrison, Tecumseh, and Tenskwatawa.

In 1809, William Henry Harrison, then governor of the Indiana Territories, was negotiating the Fort Wayne Treaty to secure native lands for white settlers in Indiana and Illinois. He was buying the land from the Delaware, Eel River, Miami and Potawatomi tribes, but these weren’t the only people actually living on the land. The Shawnee had a few settlements in the region, and, despite the fact that they had previously been asked to leave by other tribes, Tecumseh, chief of the Shawnee, took it upon himself to protest the sale.

Tecumseh claimed that the American Indian nation was one big tribe, and that no single tribe had the right to sell their land without the approval of rest of the tribes. He began traveling to the lands of the different tribes to promote this idea, as well as his brother Tenskwatawa’s ("The Prophet") religious teachings. He called for warriors to abandon the chiefs that would cede their land, return to their ancestral ways, and join his resistant pan-tribal confederacy at Prophetstown, near the Tippecanoe River.

With hundreds of armed warriors from different tribes, he went to meet with Harrison to claim the treaty as illegitimate and ask the governor to nullify it. Harrison rejected Tecumseh’s request. Before the chief left, he promised that he would form an alliance with the British unless the treaty was undone.

Hostilities broke out here and there between Tecumseh’s followers and white settlers, and the tension escalated through the year. Harrison denounced Tenskwatawa as a fraud, and Tecumseh and his brother allied with more tribes and procured firearms from the British in Canada. White settlers in the region finally demanded that the government take action.

Tippecanoe: The Battle and The Curse

Harrison received permission from Washington to take the territorial militia and a small force of army regulars to Prophetstown in November 1811 and make a show of force, in hopes that the Indian confederacy would back down. Unfortunately for both sides, Tecumseh was away from his camp and seeking more supporters for his alliance when Harrison arrived, and Tenskwatawa was left in charge. The two sides agreed to a ceasefire through the night and to meet in the morning to negotiate a truce, but the Prophet had less military experience and grace under pressure than his brother, and appears to have cracked under the pressure of having an army camped so close to Prophetstown.

There are different accounts of what happened next. Tenskwatawa may have given orders to attack. A few warriors may have encouraged an attack against Tenskwatawa’s orders and led the charge. Tenskwatawa may have sent a small group of warriors, protected by a spell he cast on them, to kill Harrison while he slept in his tent. However things started, Harrison's sentinels spotted advancing Indian warriors just before dawn the next morning and soon discovered they were surrounded. The Indians made two charges at the camp, each of which Harrison’s forces countered, forcing the Indians to flee.

Harrison feared that Tecumseh would return with reinforcements, so he ordered his men to fortify their camp for the rest of the day. The next day, scouts moved down into Prophetstown and found the town completely deserted except for one elderly woman. The woman was spared, but the town was razed and all the equipment in it destroyed. After Harrison's troops left the area, Tenskwatawa returned with some warriors to find the town in ruins.

According to legend, The Prophet, seeing his tribesmen’s graves desecrated, became enraged and placed a curse upon his nemesis, saying:

“If Harrison becomes the Great Chief, he will not finish his term. He will die in his office. You think that I have lost my powers. I who caused the Sun to darken and Red Men to give up firewater, I tell you Harrison will die. And after him every Great Chief chosen every 20 years thereafter will die. And when each one dies, let everyone remember the death of our people.”

(Alternate versions of the story say that Tecumseh himself placed the curse a few years after the battle).

Dead Presidents

Sure enough, William Henry Harrison was elected ninth President of the United States a few decades later, in 1840. He soon fell ill with a cold, which turned into pneumonia. His schedule, and the throngs of people arriving at the White House seeking political jobs, kept him from getting much rest, and his condition rapidly worsened. He died on April 4, 1841, 30 days into his presidency.

For the next 120 years, no president elected in the curse's 20-year cycle would leave the White House alive.

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected, and was shot and killed by John Wilkes Booth in 1865.

In 1880, James Garfield was elected, and was shot and killed by Charles Guiteau in 1881.

In 1900, William McKinley was elected to his second term, and was shot and killed by Leon Czolgosz in 1901.

In 1920, Warren Harding was elected, and suffered a stroke and died in 1923.

In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt was elected to a third term, and died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1945.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected, and was shot and killed by Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected, and survived an assassination attempt by John Hinckley. The President as injured but made a full recovery, suggesting that the Curse of Tippecanoe, or a streak of coincidences, had been beaten.

George W. Bush, elected in 2000, also tested the "curse" and won, surviving assassination plots and a pretzel-induced choking fit. Skeptics saw the breaking of the line as proof that the curse was nonsense, while believers insisted the Gipper and Dubya were just very lucky.

This makes a great story, a layer of mystique that covers decades of American history, but there's one catch: a lack of reliable historical evidence that Tenskwatawa actually proclaimed a curse on the presidents. The curse doesn’t appear to have been documented at any time in between the Battle of Tippecanoe and Harrison’s death, and received no national attention until Ripley's Believe It or Not mentioned it in 1931. Given that, it seems more likely—to me, anyway—that the 20-year death cycle was a strange coincidence and that someone took note of it in the early 20th century, and publicized with the tale of the curse to mythologize the presidency. What do you think?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]