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Paul Conradt

Boot Hill

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Paul Conradt

For years, every time we so much as touch a toe out of state, I’ve put cemeteries on our travel itinerary. From garden-like expanses to overgrown boot hills, whether they’re the final resting places of the well-known but not that important or the important but not that well-known, I love them all. After realizing that there are a lot of taphophiles (cemetery and/or tombstone enthusiasts) out there, I’m finally putting my archive of interesting tombstones to good use.

Welcome to Lowell, Nebraska, population 207. Believe it or not, the place was once a boom town, a major shipping point on the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad. As is the case with many once-bustling towns, Lowell hit the skids when the railroad continued building 20 miles west to the town of Kearney, making it the new trading center. When a wagon bridge was built across the Platte River at Kearney, it was basically the final nail in the coffin for Lowell.

Speaking of coffins, let’s get to one of the only attractions still remaining in Lowell—Boot Hill. During the Lowell heyday, it’s said that 25 men and one woman were killed in the crossfire of a fight between cowboys and the homesteaders. That’s what the stone says, obviously.

But according to local lore, the men and woman who reside under the hill were actually just victims of a violent era in Nebraska’s history. Two of the men were killed in a robbery attempt, one was murdered during an adulterous incident, and two were killed by their neighbors because their horses had wandered over property lines to eat corn that didn’t belong to them. Legend also has it that a saloon shootout in 1873 left 14 people dead, and all of those souls are buried at Boot Hill as well.

Whatever the truth is in Lowell, it’s probably long gone. But the folks who knew what really happened, all 26 of them, are still there, waiting for you to come say hello. The next time you’re driving through Nebraska, it’s worth a roadside stop if you have a few extra minutes to spare—and a sturdy car. The “road” that leads to Boot Hill is more of a rut in the ground than a real road, and things get pretty bumpy.

Lowell isn’t the first Boot Hill, by the way (that honor goes to Dodge City, Kansas), and it’s certainly not the only one. The most famous Boot Hill is probably in Tombstone, Arizona, where you’ll find the graves of the men killed in the infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

See all entries in our Grave Sightings series here.

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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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