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Flickr: PhotoshopRoadmap

6 People Who Tried to Steal Famous Documents

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Flickr: PhotoshopRoadmap

Diamond heists and stolen paintings might get more press, but historical documents tempt a certain kind of thief just as much. 

Some document thieves are in it for the money. They know they can get a nice sum for a Civil War map or a president's teenage letters to his mom. Many thieves get caught listing stolen documents openly on eBay, or offering them for sale to a knowledgeable collector who checks into their provenance.

But some thieves are in it for the love of the thing itself. In some cases, historical documents have more personal or emotional value than they do monetary value. Is this the oldest known photograph taken in your favorite city? An early engraving by your favorite artist? A special letter owned by one of your personal heroes? Some truly fanatical collectors can't bear to leave such treasures in the archives where they rightfully belong. We looked at a few notable document thieves who took things that didn't belong to them.

1. John Mark Tillmann

In January of this year, Tillmann was accused of stealing about 1000 documents and other artifacts from libraries and museums in several Canadian provinces. Tillman had set up the allegedly stolen objects in his house as if it was a museum. Since then, Tillman's 23-year-old son, Kyle, has also been arrested in connection with the crimes.

2. E. Forbes Smiley III

This guy got caught slicing rare maps out of library books in 2005 when he accidentally dropped an X-Acto knife on the floor of a library at Yale. Oops.

3. Barry Landau

Landau, a collector of presidential memorabilia, smuggled documents out of archival repositories using a laughably cloak-and-dagger method—hidden pockets in his clothes. He and his accomplice Jason Savedoff were caught in 2011, and admitted to stealing from historical collections in Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Washington, D.C.

4. Daniel D. Lorello

Sometimes document theft is an inside job. Lorello worked at the New York State Library for 30 years. Red flags went up when a retired historian saw an old letter listed for sale on eBay. The historian looked up the writer of the letter, and discovered that the letter belonged to the New York State Library.

5. Edward J. Renehan, Jr.

In 2008, Renehan was sentenced to 18 months in prison for stealing letters written by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The letters were in the collection of Theodore Roosevelt, and were stolen from the Theodore Roosevelt Association while Renehan was acting director of the organization.

6. Charles Merrill Mount

Mount was by many accounts a talented artist and writer. He was convicted in 1988 of transporting stolen letters by prominent politicians and literary figures that belonged to the National Archives and the Library of Congress. The prosecution believed he had taken the documents, but was only able to prove that he had sold the stolen documents to a book store in Boston.

If you like stories like this, browse through the theft reports for the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the Association of College and Research Libraries, which is a division of the American Library Association.

Primary image courtesy of Flickr user Photoshop Roadmap.

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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]