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11 Signs April Really Is "The Cruellest Month"

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T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" begins, "April is the cruellest month." And you know? Maybe he was right. Consider these terrible April events. Warning: They're really terrible.

1. April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King's assassination

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot while standing on the second-story balcony of a Memphis motel and pronounced dead an hour later. Conspiracies surround the tragedy, but James Earl Ray confessed and was sentenced to life in prison for the murder. Robert Kennedy announced King's death in a campaign speech that night, sympathizing with the King family and sharing his own feelings about his brother John F. Kennedy's assassination. Two months later, Robert Kennedy was also assassinated.

2. April 13, 1970: Apollo 13 oxygen tank explosion

Three days after launching, Apollo 13's oxygen tanks ruptured. The crew shut off the Command Module and used the Lunar Module as a lifeboat, a decision that ultimately saved their lives. The team never made it to the moon, but they miraculously survived, despite limited power, little water, and cold temperatures. So the mission wasn't another April disaster, but it was very close. Veryclose.

3. April 14, 1865: Abraham Lincoln's assassination

Five days after Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union general Ulysses S. Grant, President Lincoln was assassinated—the first U.S. president ever to be so—while watching a play at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C. Actor John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators also planned to kill the Secretary of State and Vice-President, but were unsuccessful.

4. April 15, 1912: The Titanic sinking 

On its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City, the "unsinkable" ocean liner hit an iceberg and sank within three hours. There are conflicting accounts of how many people died, but 1500 is a safe—and very tragic—estimate.

Not to make light of the disaster—but seriously, you're going to need some humor to get through this piece—years later, Celine Dion recorded the ear-wrenching "My Heart Will Go On" for James Cameron's 1997 film Titanic. Just sayin'.

5. April 15, 1955-Present: U.S. Tax Day 

April 15 has been known as "Tax Day" since 1955, but the date can vary. If April 15 happens to be a Friday in a given year, the deadline's extended to Monday. On a weekend, it's extended to Tuesday. Either way, it's in April. (And if you're wondering, it used to be in March.)

Of course, Tax Day's not so bad if you get a refund. That's why I propose we alternatively call it "Buy a freelancer a drink day." Who's in?

6. April 17, 1961: Bay of Pigs invasion

John F. Kennedy remains one of the most beloved U.S. presidents, but the failed Bay of Pigs invasion early on in his administration was a total fiasco. Under Kennedy's leadership (and Eisenhower's original plan), the CIA gathered and trained a group of Cuban exiles and then sent them to invade the Bay of Pigs and overthrow Castro. This way, they figured, the U.S. wouldn't technically be involved. (Uh, what?) The exiles were met and outnumbered by the Cuban fighter planes, tanks, and militia and had no backup from the U.S. They surrendered a few days later, after 118 exiles were killed and over 1,000 were captured.

7. April 19, 1993: Mount Carmel Center raid

On February 28, 1993, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms tried to deliver a search warrant at Mount Carmel Center, the Waco, Texas headquarters of the Branch Davidians led by David Koresh. Four agents and six Branch Davidians were killed in the gun battle that ensued. The FBI launched a 51-day stand-off and eventually raided the compound on April 19. An attack that was supposedly only going to use tanks and tear gas led to guns, grenades, and a fire that killed 76 Branch Davidians, ages 1 to 76. However you view the event, it's a tragedy.

8. April 19, 1995: Oklahoma City bombing

Incensed by the Waco siege and his proclaimed hatred of the federal government, Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh detonated a bomb at the front of Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building two years after the Mount Carmel Center raid. The bombing remains the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history, killing 168, including 19 children in a daycare center, and injuring more than 800.

9. April 20, 1999: Columbine High School massacre

Two Colorado high schoolers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, opened fire at their school, making their way through the cafeteria, library, and hallways. The attack left 15 dead, 21 injured, and millions scarred.

10. April 20, 1889: Adolf Hitler's birthday 

Heavy stuff, right? The Columbine Massacre was definitely planned to occur around the anniversary of the deadly events of years prior. But it's not certain if the perpetrators chose April 20 because that's the day of Adolf Hitler's birth. This piece isn't about getting political, but I think we can all agree that a world without Hitler would've been a happier one.

11. April 20, 2010: Deepwater Horizon explosion and BP oil spill

But wait, there's more April 20 terror! Sorry.

An explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico tragically killed 11 workers and injured 17. Two days later, the subsequent oil spill, the largest marine oil spill ever, made the news. BP reported a leak of about 42,000 gallons of oil a day and a 100-mile oil slick spanned the Louisiana coast. Eventually, oil and tar washed up on beaches. Wildlife died. The leak wasn't permanently sealed until September 19!

Ugh. Now that we're all thoroughly bummed out, let's try something else: What good things happened in April?

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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
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.