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Other People Who Should Have Bewared the Ides

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Everyone knows Julius Caesar had a pretty bad March 15th. But he’s not the only one! Here are six other people (or groups of people) who would have been better off staying in bed on the Ides.

Film producer Varick Frissell


In 1931, Frissell was shooting additional footage for his groundbreaking movie The Viking, the first Canadian movie made with sound and the world’s first talkie ever shot on location. Somehow, dynamite on the ship used for blasting icebergs was somehow set off, killing some men in the explosion, others in the resulting fire, and still others when the ship sank. All in all, 27 people perished. Frissell’s body was never found.

Pancho Villa

On March 15, 1916, Major General John Pershing led 4,800 men into Mexico to capture Pancho Villa under orders from President Woodrow Wilson. Villa’s men had executed 16 Americans headed via train to an American-owned mine in Chihuahua in January; another 17 people were killed two months later when Villa’s men ventured into the border town of Columbus, New Mexico. However, the Expedition ended a year later and was considered by Pershing to be a complete and utter failure. Villa lived until 1923, when he died at the hands of assassins who had nothing to do with the Expedition.

Charles Dickinson


The dumbest thing Charles Dickinson ever did was insulting Andrew Jackson’s wife. After repeated attacks on his own character and to his wife’s honor, Jackson challenged Dickinson to a duel in 1806. Dickinson shot first, striking Jackson in the chest very close to his heart. Jackson put one hand over his chest to stop the blood, then took his aim. The gun misfired, which should have counted as his shot. However, Jackson fired again, this time killing his opponent. This all happened in May, so why were the Ides of March a bad day for Dickinson? Andrew Jackson was born on March 15, 1767.

H.P. Lovecraft

At the young age of 46, H.P. Lovecraft succumbed to cancer of the small intestine with a contributory cause of kidney disease. Though his years were few, his writing was revolutionary and prolific. Stephen King, Clive barker, Neil Gaiman, Jorge Luis Borges, John Carpenter, Joyce Carol Oates and Guillermo Del Toro all count Lovecraft as a major influence on their work. Had he lived to write another day, who knows what the creator of the Necronomicon and Cthulhu would have come up with?

Ed Sullivan


Without much ado or fanfare, The Ed Sullivan Show was canceled in 1971. It was so sudden that there was no series finale - though it’s said that Sullivan, angry and hurt at CBS, actually refused to do one. He had admitted himself that the show was waning, but was reportedly heartbroken about the cancellation because he was just two years away from seeing the show hit the 25-year mark.

Guests and staff of the Hotel New World

On March 15, 1986, a six-story building - three stories of which housed a hotel - in Singapore unexpectedly crumbled to the ground in less than a minute, according to reports. By the time all of the survivors were pulled out days later, 33 people were dead. It was later discovered that the structural engineer had made some fatal miscalculations.

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