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Star Spangled Banter: 13 Fun Facts About the U.S. Flag

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Happy Flag Day! If you’re wondering what June 14th has to do with the Stars and Stripes, why the flag looks the way it does, who came up with it, who paid for it, what you can and can’t do with it, and how those flags on the moon are holding up…we salute you!

1. The first flag was commissioned with a payment of “three strings of wampum.”

By 1777, the U.S. was still waffling on the exact look of its flag. This was a cause for concern for Thomas Green, an American Indian who wanted the protection of an official flag while traveling through treacherous territory to Philadelphia. Thomas asked for help from Congress, throwing in the aforementioned payment to sweeten the deal. Within 10 days, a resolution was passed, finalizing the flag as a creation with 13 stars and 13 stripes. The date: June 14th, 1777.

2. Betsy Who?

She may have sewn quite a few in her day, but there is no actual evidence that Betsy Ross was the person responsible for the design of the US Flag. In fact, Betsy’s name didn’t even come up in conjunction with the deed until 1876, forty years after her death. The first person to have made that claim publicly was New Jersey Congressman Francis Hopkinson in 1780, who had hoped (in vain) to earn a “quarter cask of the public wine” for his efforts. Apparently, he didn’t take wampum.

An aside: there also seems to be dispute as to whether Betsy Ross even lived in Philadelphia’s popular Betsy Ross House.

3. The flag has 13 stripes…except when it didn’t.

Upon welcoming Vermont and Kentucky—states 14 and 15—into the union, a new version of the flag was created that had 15 stars and 15 stripes. As the U.S. continued to add new states, there was concern about having to continually add additional stripes. The solution: revert to 13 to represent the original 13 colonies, and let the stars do the heavy lifting.

4. Some of the star fields have been pretty strange looking.

As of 1818, conventions concerning the numbers of stars and stripes were cemented and remain in place today. However, one thing remained un-codified: star layout. With this lack of official guidelines, some designers got creative…in kind of a Microsoft Paint-way.

26-star “star” flag:

33-star Ft. Sumter flag:

Does anyone else see this?

Courtesy of BBRCreative

38-star concentric creation:

5. Welcome to Dakota!

There have been 27 official versions of the US flag, each with a different amount of stars. A 39-star version is not among them, but that didn’t stop some enterprising flag manufacturers from producing one for the marketplace. The reason for the miscalculation: some thought North Dakota and South Dakota were going to be admitted as one state.

6. The 50-star pattern was created by a high school student.

When Alaska and Hawaii became states 49 and 50, President Eisenhower received thousands of ideas for an updated flag. Almost all of them were of a 50-star flag, including one from Robert G. Heft, a 17-year-old student at Lancaster (Ohio) High, who created the design for a class project. He was one of three to submit the version that was accepted and remains in use today.

Robert got a B- on his project.

7. Another submission from that time looked vaguely like a Swastika.

Courtesy of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library

8. The 50-star flag is the first one to have lasted 50 years.

In contrast, over a 50-year period in the early 1800s, the flag went through 17 different versions.

9. The actual flag that inspired "The Star Spangled Banner" still exists.

The flag that flew at Ft. McHenry during the War of 1812, immortalized in Francis Scott Key’s tune, is one of the few remaining specimens of a 15-star, 15-bar flag. What’s left of it is on permanent display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

10. A snippet of that flag sold at an auction in 2011 for $38,000.

We say “what’s left of it” because the flag in question was a victim of “souveniring,” a once-common practice where sections from flags were snipped off and sold as mementoes. The 2” x 5” swatch in question was taken from the flag in the 1800s.

11. The Flag Desecration Amendment failed in 2006.

The proposed constitutional amendment would have prohibited not only burning the flag (for political reasons) but printing it on disposable items such as t-shirts or napkins. The amendment fell one vote short in the Senate.

12. Even if it had passed, burning the flag is A-OK...

…as long as it’s already damaged beyond repair. It’s one way that the flag may be disposed of in a “dignified manner,” according to the U.S. Flag Code.

Then again, if the U.S. Flag Code got its way, the stars and stripes wouldn’t appear in advertising either.

13. Of the six flags planted on the Moon, five of them are still standing.

The one that’s not: the first one, planted by Neil Armstrong during the Apollo 11 mission. Readers of a certain age might also recognize the now-fallen flag from the original MTV bumper.

See Also: The Pledge of Allegiance was written in part to sell flags to schools.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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May 23, 2017
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