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The True Story of the Southwick Jog

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Wikimedia Commons

If you were very bored one day and built a 3D model of the state of Connecticut, then ran your hand along the top, you’d get to a place, just north of the town of Granby, where your hand would fall into a strange little pocket. This is the “Southwick Jog,” a two-square-mile plot of land where an otherwise straight border between Connecticut and Massachusetts breaks and dips itself a little south.

Almost everyone living on either side of the Jog has a story to explain it. One legend says that the border dips because the Congamond Lakes on the land had to be given to Massachusetts since their source waters were further up in her territory. Another story goes that the surveyors who set the border were drunk the whole time; when they sobered up and realized they had laid the line too far north, they gave Massachusetts that little pocket to make up for the lost land, instead of re-surveying. A joke explanation given in Massachusetts is that the Jog is there to hold the commonwealth in place, lest it slide into the sea. Still other stories give reasons like complicated tax evasion schemes or bizarre royal feuds.

The real reason for existence of the Jog is at once much simpler and more complicated than any of the folk tales from the area. The story spans more than 150 years and five different border surveys, but starts with one lesson: Surveying is a job best left to professionals.

In the Beginning

In the mid-17th century, English explorers moving through the Connecticut River Valley founded a farming community they called Southwick. To assert its sovereignty in the area, the Massachusetts Bay Colony sent two men to survey and mark the colony’s southern boundary in 1642. Instead of hiring professional surveyors to walk the boundary line, though, Massachusetts hired Nathaniel Woodward and Solomon Saffery, who were described as “skillful and approved” artists. Connecticut was less enamored by the men’s skills, but kept its mouth shut and allowed the survey to be done.

Line #1

According to the Massachusetts Charter, the colony’s southern border was to run west “from a point three miles south of the most southerly branch of the Charles River.” Woodward and Saffery botched the job right from the start—thanks in part to their lack of experience and their crude, inaccurate tools—by beginning at a point a few miles too far south. They made things worse as they moved west and decided that, rather than walking the line like other surveyors would marking it as they went, they would save time and effort and avoid confrontation with native tribes if they traveled by boat. They went back to the coast, sailed around Cape Cod, down into Long Island Sound and then up the Connecticut River. When they reached what they thought the proper latitude, they fixed the line and established the boundary, skipping all that walking in between the two points.

The line wound up being fixed too far to the south (as much a seven miles below the true line). Connecticut was suspicious of the survey, but wouldn't even receive a royal charter for several years, and again stayed quiet on the issue.

By 1662, Connecticut had its charter, which clearly defined her northern border as being above Woodward and Saffery’s line, but was still hesitant to fight Massachusetts over it because she was already involved in border disputes with Rhode Island and New York.

Meanwhile, the land between the two lines continued to fill up with people who had only a hazy conception of which colony they lived in.

Line #2

After a few decades occasional sparring over the border(s), Connecticut asked Massachusetts to help it fix the problem and complete a joint survey. Massachusetts refused, maintaining that the 1642 survey was correct.

Connecticut decided to strike out alone, hiring John Butler and William Whitney—real surveyors—to run the line according to its charter. They conducted their survey in a very orthodox fashion and reported in August 1695 that the previous line had been laid too far south. Connecticut confronted Massachusetts with the report, but Massachusetts only responded to say that the report was unnecessary, since the border had already been established in 1642.

Line #3

In 1702, Connecticut commissioned two men from that colony and one from Massachusetts to run another line according to the Massachusetts charter. Their result coincided almost perfectly with the line Connecticut had run just a few years prior and confirmed again that Woodward and Saffery’s line was too far south. Massachusetts did not want to accept the results and give up territory, but it was also reluctant to argue a survey conducted by one of its own citizens according to its own charter. Eventually, Massachusetts decided that the survey was invalid and she could not accept the border, as the Massachusetts surveyor had never received power to represent the colony.

Line #4

In 1713, a joint commission made up of representatives from both colonies divvied up control of the towns in the disputed territory. When the residents of some of these towns complained about where they’d wound up, the two colonies finally agreed to a joint survey of a new border according to their charters. Not surprisingly, it fell far north of Line #1 and closer to Lines #2 and #3.

Massachusetts, much to Connecticut’s shock, accepted the line and relinquished its claims to much of the disputed land. The new line laid north of several Massachusetts settlements, though, and presented the problem of which colony they would belong to: the one that first settled them or the one that now had the land they sat on. Another commission decided that Massachusetts should retain control of these towns, including the area of Southwick. This resulted in some adjustments to the line, including that little pocket of Massachusetts dipping below the rest of the border. Connecticut, meanwhile, was reimbursed with an equal amount of land from within Massachusetts. To everyone involved it seemed a fair decision.

Line #5

Everyone, that is, except the inhabitants of these towns, who were not given any say in the matter of which colony they went to. It was too late to do anything, though, since the agreement was already signed, stamped and sealed. The border seemed settled, finally, so the jilted townspeople regrouped and came up with a plan.

Right when things had settled down and the colonial governments thought that that the border issue was done, the General Assembly of Connecticut received petitions from people living in several of the Massachusetts border towns in the previously disputed area. The petitioners claimed that if their land had laid below the accepted line, then they should, and wanted to, be part of Connecticut (mostly because taxes were lower there). The General Assembly saw no flaw in the argument and approved the petition.

As conflicts with England came to a head in the colonies and the war of independence broke out, the border dispute was set aside. After the war, Connecticut got back around to dealing with the towns. She argued to Massachusetts that these towns were clearly below the boundary that had first agreed upon and had been given to Massachusetts only out of Connecticut’s generosity. Furthermore, the residents of the disputed lands had requested to be part of Connecticut. Massachusetts countered with the fact that Connecticut’s premature approval of the petition and assumed jurisdiction over the towns directly violated their 1713 compromise. The Bay State was willing to overlook this faux pas, however, if Connecticut stopped pressing it to give up any more land.

The situation was left at that until 1801, when another agreement was hammered out to soothe lingering tension: The area around Southwick would be divided in two, with the Congamond Lakes as the boundary. The portion east of the lakes would go to Connecticut, and the portion to the west would go to Massachusetts. The two states agreed, the area was surveyed again, the Jog got its current shape and, after one hundred and fifty-nine years, the border was established. For good this time!, everyone swore.

Or was it?

Oh jeez.

Today, there remains a small, half-serious movement of Connecticuters who want to “take back the notch” and set the border as laid out by lines #2 and #3—they're even selling t-shirts—so the Jog’s story might have a few more chapters left in it. Stay tuned.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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