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The Statue of Liberty Arrived 130 Years Ago Today

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In the summer of 1876, Philadelphia was teeming with tourists. Over the course of the season, 10 million people from 35 countries poured into Fairmount Park to take in the sights at the first-ever World’s Fair in America. Visitors marveled at working elevators, electric lights, and a live walrus. American Indians stood on display, living cultural exhibits for fairgoers to gawk at. The programming changed daily; prizefights, races, and parades were all used to lure day-trippers. On Delaware-Maryland-Virginia Day, there was even a jousting match. But one spectacle drew extra attention- a gigantic disembodied arm that towered four stories above the fairground.

A late entrant to the festival, the lonely, torch-bearing limb wasn’t included in the official guide. Few knew that it was destined to become part of an even bigger statue, meant to be a gift from France to America. Instead, fairgoers simply saw the sculpture as the best way to catch a glimpse of the surrounding counties. They flocked to climb up the arm and stand on the torch’s balcony, forking over 50 cents apiece for the experience. In the space where the statue’s giant elbow should have been, a sculptor stood anxiously, hustling photos and scrap metal from his makeshift souvenir stand. If he had any chance of completing his masterpiece, he’d need all the extra cash he could get.

How War Led to Lady Liberty

The story of the statue begins with the American Civil War. When fighting broke out in 1861, the rest of the world watched with rapt attention: Could the grand experiment in democracy survive? The United States had been an inspiration to the French, who were locked in a cycle of extremism, swinging between bloody democratic revolutions and imperial autocracy. When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865, the French were crushed. More than 40,000 grieving citizens contributed to a fund to award Lincoln’s widow a gold medal.

It was in this climate, in the summer of 1865, that a group of prominent Frenchmen were discussing politics at a dinner party given by Edouard René de Laboulaye, a prominent historian and law professor. France was still under the thumb of Napoleon III, but when Laboulaye looked to America, he was inspired by "a people intoxicated with hope." He proposed that France give America a monument to liberty and independence in honor of her upcoming centennial. After all, tens of thousands of Frenchmen had just contributed to a medal for Mary Todd Lincoln-how much harder could it be to pony up for a statue?

Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, an up-and-coming sculptor, was excited by the idea. As his mind raced, he pictured the colossi of Egypt, the twin 60-foot, 720-ton sandstone statues of seated pharaohs. Bartholdi wanted his monument to be just as inspiring, and his sketches leaned on the popular imagery of the time-broken chains, upheld torches, crowns meant to represent the rising sun. But Bartholdi also wanted to break from French tradition. Instead of depicting liberty as a half-naked barricade stormer, the artist’s Neoclassical goddess would look staid and calm. Bartholdi didn’t want "Liberty Enlightening the World" to be just a tribute to American freedom. The statue had to send a pointed message to France that democracy works. It didn’t take long for Bartholdi to perfect his vision for the sculpture. Getting the statue actually built, however, was another matter.

Crowdfunding a Statue

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Given the statue's message, backing from the French government seemed unlikely. That meant all the funds—originally estimated at 400,000 francs (more than $2 million today)—had to come from the French people. Laboulaye had an idea: What if he and Bartholdi pitched the project as a joint venture between the two countries? As a show of their shared friendship, France could provide the statue and America the pedestal.

Bartholdi was tasked with convincing Americans to join in. In June 1871, he packed up a small clay model of the statue and set sail across the Atlantic. The sculptor, who spoke almost no English, knew he’d been charged with a difficult job but didn’t realize just how difficult it would be. Most Americans he contacted couldn’t grasp why their country would want a giant torch-wielding monument, much less why they’d help pay for it. After an exhausting four-month tour, Bartholdi returned to France, no closer to financing the pedestal.

Thankfully, fundraising there was proceeding at a better pace, thanks to a national lottery and image-licensing deals. Companies lined up to plaster Lady Liberty’s image on everything from "nerve tonics" to cigars, and they were willing to pay for it. As funds trickled in, Bartholdi began work on the torch and arm. In 1876, he sent the pieces to the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, hoping that it would motivate Americans to open their wallets. Finally, his efforts were beginning to pay off.

That same year, a group called the American Committee assembled to boost the fundraising-and an inter-city competition heated up. Bartholdi and his supporters had hinted to New York, the statue’s promised location, that Lady Liberty would be just as welcome in Philadelphia should New Yorkers fail to do their part. In October, The New York Times fired back with an outraged editorial, accusing Philadelphians of setting their "piratical hearts" on "other people’s lighthouses."

Still, there was no denying that the pedestal would be expensive. Building the base alone would cost $250,000, and Americans couldn’t justify spending that much on a "Frenchy and fanciful" statue. If it was a gift, why didn’t France just throw in the pedestal too? The American Committee and other supporters refused to give up. They appealed to everyone from schoolchildren to Civil War veterans. President Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt chimed in with support. But it took the curmudgeonly owner of theNew York World newspaper to finish the job.

"We must raise the money!" Joseph Pulitzer boomed in an editorial, announcing that his paper would run a subscription campaign to raise the $100,000. Within five months, 120,000 people responded to his appeal. Some donated as much as $2,500; most contributed what they could, often less than a dollar. By August 11, 1885, the pedestal campaign had reached its goal. With the funding under control, there was an even bigger challenge to surmount: No one had ever attempted to build a statue so large.

Building Lady Liberty

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The description of how Lady Liberty was built reads like a word problem. Bartholdi’s workmen started by creating a 4-foot model. Then they doubled the size. Then they quadrupled it to create a 38-foot-tall plaster model. The workmen then broke down the structure into 300 sections, taking each piece and enlarging it to precisely four times its size. The result? A full-scale model of the final statue-in pieces! Next, the workmen used the pieces to create a mold using either wood or malleable lead sheets depending on the shape; and finally, they hammered the copper sheets against the shape. Though the finished statue is solid, each one of the 310 copper sheets that make up her skin is incredibly thin: the width of just two pennies stuck together.

But Bartholdi still needed help with the structure, so he recruited another famous Frenchman, Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel. At the time, Eiffel was known simply as a bridge engineer; ground wouldn’t be broken on the tower that bears his name for another decade. But he had a reputation for innovation. Eiffel started by creating a flexible iron skeleton. The frame had enough give for the copper to expand in the sun’s heat-otherwise the statue’s skin would buckle and crack. He also used his knowledge of the pressures on bridges and viaducts to great effect, ensuring that the structure would bend with the wind, thanks to a framework of trussed iron pylons off a central pillar. In fact, Eiffel’s design for the structure anticipated the principles that would later make the great 20th-century skyscrapers possible.

For his part, Eiffel wasn’t impressed by his own genius, and he rarely talked about the statue. When he did, it was mostly about the structure: "The work has well resisted the formidable storms that have assailed it."

Fashionably Late

The Statue of Liberty was nearly a decade late to her own party. By the time she was completed in July 1884, Bartholdi had spent 19 years on the project. Laboulaye had died the year before. For half a year, Liberty stood completely assembled in Paris’s 17th arrondissement, waiting to catch a ride to America. When she finally did, she was disassembled into 350 pieces and packed in 214 boxes.

It took 26 days on a frigate to reach Bedloe’s Island in New York Harbor, her new home. The pedestal wasn’t completed until April 1886. It took another four months to reassemble her skeleton and rivet on Lady Liberty’s pre-patina skin, which was still a deep, ruddy brown. And because the pedestal was so small, no scaffolding could be erected around her! Workers dangled from ropes latched to the framework, buffeted by the harbor winds.

On October 28, 1886, the Statue of Liberty was finally ready. New York held its first-ever ticker tape parade for her unveiling. And while hundreds of thousands cheered from Manhattan, only 2,000 people were on the island when she was finally opened to the public-a "tidy, quiet crowd," an officer on duty told The New York Times.

Since then, the now pastel-green goddess has risen above New York Harbor, her torch welcoming the "huddled masses" to America. The world knows her as the everlasting symbol of justice, opportunity, and freedom against tyranny. And though fewer are aware of it, she is also the symbol of France’s own hopes for democracy, an example of the impressive fundraising power of two countries and, above all, a reminder of the worst gift-giving etiquette in recorded history.

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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