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5 Failed Candidates for the 51st State

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By Harold Maass

Politicians in ten northeastern Colorado counties are flirting with a proposal to break away and form their own state — North Colorado.

Twenty commissioners from Cheyenne, Kit Carson, Lincoln, Logan, Morgan, Phillips, Sedgwick, Washington, Weld, and Yuma counties have rallied behind the idea. They say their rural oasis is getting pushed around by the state's increasingly dominant urban lawmakers, who this year passed a host of measures the would-be secessionists don't like, including higher renewable energy standards for rural electric co-ops, civil unions for gay couples, and tough new gun-control laws.

"I think the city people kind of feel like country people are just hicks," Washington County farmer John Lueth told the Denver Post. "We just don't have that much of a voice."

Unfortunately for North Colorado's would-be founding fathers, not enough people feel that way to give the scheme much of a chance. The plan would need the approval of voters, the state General Assembly, and the U.S. Congress, none of which would be expected to go along.

But the rebels of North Colorado are in good company. No state has successfully seceded since West Virginia separated from Virginia in 1863 — but plenty of places have tried. In 1969, for example, writer Norman Mailer ran in a Democratic mayoral primary in New York City on a platform calling for transforming the city into a new state. Here are four of the most recent cases where locals fed up with the powers that be made failed attempts to break away and form the nation's 51st state:

1. Baja Arizona

Many liberals in southern Arizona want nothing to do with the conservatives who run the state government in Phoenix. Last year, left-leaning Arizonans proposed a ballot measure to peel off Pima County to form a new state, Baja Arizona, in protest of recent decisions to reduce funding for schools and crack down on illegal immigrants. They weren't successful, but activists did hold a July 4 celebration declaring their independence and pledging allegiance to the U.S. as the 51st state.

2. Austin, Texas

Petitions at WhiteHouse.gov have been filed from every state proposing secession from the union. The most popular has been the one from Texas — 125,746 people have signed since it was posted in November 2012. Even Gov. Rick Perry (R) has hinted at trouble "if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people." That didn't sit well with some people in Austin, Texas. Another petition was filed last year from the liberal city, noted Erin Overbey at The New Yorker, asking "that it be allowed to secede from Texas, so that it can remain a part of the Union if the state secedes."

3. South Florida

Politicians in the heavily Democratic counties in the densely populated southern tip of the Sunshine State have made several attempts to split from the rural, mostly Republican central and northern parts of the state. "They speak Southern. We speak Spanish (and Creole, Portuguese, French, Russian, Romanian, Yiddish and Brooklynese)," argued Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel columnist Michael Mayo last year. "Clearly, we're not on the same page, and maybe not even in the same century." Still, a proposal to establish the separate states of North and South Florida went nowhere in 2008, and an attempt to revive the idea fizzled last year.

4. South California

North vs. South appears to be a recurring theme. In 2011, Jeff Jones, a Republican supervisor in Riverside County, proposed splitting off and forming a new state called South California. It would have had a population of 13.7 million people. Jones said he wanted to flee the state government because it was "completely dysfunctional" and unresponsive to his area's needs. "I am tired of California being the laughingstock of late-night jokes," he told The New York Times. "We must change course immediately or create a new state." A spokesman for California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) dismissed the idea. "A secessionist movement? What is this 1860?" he told Britain's Telegraph. "It's a supremely ridiculous waste of everybody's time."

See Also: 12 Proposed States That Just Missed the Cut

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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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