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Library of Congress

Top 10 Viral Hits of the Pre-Civil War Years

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Library of Congress

For as long as there have been means to distribute information widely, there has been the potential for information to go viral. These days, we have easily measurable indexes of virality—pageviews, tweets, shares, and likes, to name a few, but scholars are discovering other ways to quantify virality for the pre-internet era. The Infectious Texts project at Northeastern University aims to foster a clearer understanding of the circulation of ideas in the 19th century by looking at the viral spread of newspaper and magazine texts.

In a recent paper, project leaders David Smith, Ryan Cordell, and Elizabeth Maddock Dillon describe a method for searching through digitized archives of old newspapers to find repeated chunks of text that reveal how the same stories got printed and re-printed. The task is not as easy as it might seem. The algorithms have to filter out ads and other uninteresting repetition, and deal with editorial changes to articles and messy character recognition issues.

An analysis of 1.6 billion words from 41,829 issues of 132 newspapers in the period covering 1830 to 1860 uncovered these top 10 viral hits of the pre-Civil War era.

1. The inaugural address of President James Buchanan

When Buchanan took office in 1857, the speech he delivered had high news value, being delivered at a moment when the country was on the verge of being torn apart over the question of slavery. It certainly didn’t make the rounds because it was eloquent or inspiring. He rather ridiculously asserted, “most happy will it be for the country when the public mind shall be diverted from this question to others of more pressing and practical importance.”

2. Washington’s Farewell Address

Though Washington’s Farewell Address was very old news in the period covered by the study, excerpts from it, especially ones highlighting the importance of national unity, were quoted in various articles with various agendas in the years leading up to the Civil War.

3. A recipe for making starch with gum Arabic

Lest you think the viral hits of the good old days only concerned themselves with politics and inspiring historical references, helpful how-to tips also got around. A popular recipe for making starch with gum Arabic explained how you too could “get that fine gloss” on your linen and muslin.

4. “A Beautiful Reflection”

There was also an appetite for treacly meditations on the meaning of it all. This essay by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (known as the coiner of “it was a dark and stormy night”) asks, “Why is it that the rainbow and clouds come over us with a beauty that is not of earth, and then pass off and leave us to muse on their faded loveliness?”

5. Queen Victoria’s telegraph message to President Buchanan, transmitted on completion of the Atlantic cable

The 1858 transmission of the first transcontinental telegram (seen at the top of this post) was a historical technological achievement. Reading the message that had zipped across the ocean was a way for the public to experience and feel part of a history-making moment. It was reprinted frequently, partly because an initial error had cut off half the message, so it was printed a second time in full in later editions, and partly because articles reporting on celebrations of the achievement printed the message yet again. The cable only worked for a few weeks.

6. President Buchanan's 1860 State of the union address

This speech had something in it to make everyone mad. In it, Buchanan criticized the North for stirring up trouble on the issue of slavery and proposed an amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing the right to own slaves. He told the South that secession was unjustified, but presented no plan (besides the ultimately failed amendment) for heading off secession.

7. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

This 1848 treaty between Mexico and the U.S. ended the war between the two countries. The U.S. paid $15 million in damages to Mexico and gained a large chunk of the West, from Texas to California.

8. The “Soldier’s Bill”

This bill, passed by Congress in 1850, guaranteed pension rights to soldiers and their widows.

9. A report on the defeat of the Austrian army in the Battle of Montebello

It was a blow for the Austrian Empire in 1859 when France helped the Sardinians defeat the Austrian army during the Second Italian War for Independence. One report on it was used multiple times in U.S. newspapers.

10. “Household Economy”

Who doesn’t have an opinion on how kids should be raised and what they should be exposed to? Grand statements on these matters have always been popular with readers. If they promote the publication responsible for delivering the message, then all the better. According to the researchers this was “a story proclaiming the educational and moral value to children of reading newspapers in the home.”

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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]