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Delaware's Many Shipwrecks

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If you want to learn about someplace, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home.

Although Delaware is often called The First State because it was the first to ratify the Constitution back in 1787, it will never be accused of being a very strange state. There simply isn’t a lot of room for too many weird museums or crazy statues in 2500 square miles of land. But just off the coast is another thing: Over the years, many a ship has sunk off of Delaware. Here are the stories behind two of the wrecks.

The Story of Coin Beach

After a night of thunderstorms, it’s not unusual to find the beach near Delaware Seashore State Park invaded by people with metal detectors. This strip of sand, known as Coin Beach, has produced the occasional lucky find since an Irish ship, the Faithful Steward, sunk just offshore on September 1, 1785. 

The story goes that the Steward left Londonderry, Ireland on July 9 filled mostly with families coming to America in search of a better life. To celebrate the end of the long journey across the Atlantic, Captain Connolly McCausland and his crew threw a party.  Unfortunately, they partied a little too hard and many of them, including McCausland, passed out, leaving the ship at the mercy of the seas. The Steward ran aground less than 150 yards from shore and began to sink, forcing the passengers into the drink. Of the 249 souls on board, only 68 survived.

While the loss of human life is tragic, the Faithful Steward also lost all her cargo, including 400 barrels filled with British pennies and halfpennies. It’s these coins that have washed up ever since, giving Coin Beach its nickname. However, many local treasure hunters claim the coins are now becoming few and far between. It seems the most they find today are rusted shoe buckles and other, small personal belongings, which, while interesting, are not very lucrative finds.            

De Braak

Commander James Drew of the British Royal Navy and his ship, the 18-gun brig-sloop HMS De Braak, were having a pretty good run in May 1798. They had just captured the Don Francisco Xavier, an enemy Spanish ship, and were towing it into Delaware Bay to collect a $160,000 bounty. However, Drew’s good luck ran out as a freak storm created high winds, capsizing the boat before the crew could respond in time. Forty-seven men died as the ship sank, including Drew, his 35-man crew, and most of the Spanish prisoners that had been held in the hull. Only three prisoners survived, paddling to shore on the Commander’s wooden chest.  When they were rescued, they were reportedly carrying gold coins, which led many to speculate that the De Braak was filled with valuable treasure.

The rumors of sunken treasure persisted and more than 30 salvage operations were attempted over the years, but found little success. But luck finally struck for Sub-Sal, Inc., who used side-scan sonar to find the ship in 1984 and soon secured the rights to salvage the site. Over the course of two years, Sub-Sal recovered nearly 20,000 artifacts from the De Braak, but, because they were only interested in treasure, threw many items of historical value overboard. One of these items was a rare 18th Century Royal Navy stove, said to be one of only two known to be left in existence. There were even reports they disposed of human remains in the same manner, a clear violation of numerous state and federal laws. In the end, they only found a few gold coins that weren’t even valuable enough to justify the expense of the salvage. Worst of all, they did irreparable harm to the ship’s hull and the integrity of the archaeological site. 

The irresponsible salvage of the De Braak was the final straw for many in the underwater archaeology field. They had been fighting for more stringent federal laws to safeguard underwater historical sites after thousands of sunken ships were destroyed by treasure hunters in the 1970s. In response, the Abandoned Shipwrecks Act was passed in 1988, which made any historic or abandoned shipwrecks found in a state’s coastal waters the property of the state. The act makes public access to the shipwrecks legal, but taking any objects from the sites is against the law. This also brings the excavation of shipwrecks under the control of the state, who can hire private salvage teams to bring up artifacts if the state deems it’s in the public’s interest. 

The 20,000 “worthless” artifacts recovered from the De Braak site were sold to the State of Delaware for $300,000, and can now be seen in the Zwaanendael Museum in Lewes, Delware. The ship’s hull underwent a lengthy preservation process and can now viewed at Cape Henlopen State Park.  

Have the scoop on an unusual person, place or event in your state?  Tell me about it on Twitter (@spacemonkeyx) and maybe I’ll include it in a future edition of Freaky Fifty!   

See all the entries in the Strange State series here

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]