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Stacy Conradt

Jesse James

Original image
Stacy 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.

Here lies Jesse James. Or does he? The answer to that depends on who you ask.

According to most, the American outlaw and train robber was killed at his home on April 3, 1882. Legend has it that it was his clean streak that did him in. When James turned his back to take a feather duster (the "Feather Duster of Death," which you can actually visit) to the top of a picture frame, his supposed partner in crime took him out with a bullet to the head. The kicker? The assassin, Bob Ford, was one of just a few people Jesse James still trusted. Unaware that Governor Thomas T. Crittenden had secretly negotiated with Ford to bring the outlaw to justice, James had asked the Ford brothers to move in with him for protection.

However, this New York Times article from the day says that James wasn’t spring cleaning at all—he had actually just taken his pistols off and was “preparing to wash himself” when Ford struck. Whichever way it really happened, James’ body was supposedly positively identified by a partially missing finger and scars from previous bullet wounds. He was buried at the family farm under an epitaph written by his mother, shown here next to the gravesite.

Photo courtesy of

SEPT .5, 1847
APR. 3, 1882

James’ body was moved to Mount Olivet Cemetery to be interred with his wife, Zerelda, after her death in 1900. The original marker remains at the homestead.

That is, if it was even his body. Almost immediately after his death, rumors began to swirl that Ford and James had worked together to stage a murder. In 1948, these rumors were given some credibility when a man named J. Frank Dalton stepped forward and claimed to be the famous train robber. If he was James, he would have been 101 years old at the time. Though the claim seemed dubious at best, a publication called The Police Gazette reported that they examined Dalton and found him to have all of the scars the real Jesse James had. Though Dalton did have impressive knowledge of James’ robberies and the era in general, he didn’t do well under questioning from Stella James, who married James’ son, Jesse, Jr.

The James family declared that Dalton was a phony. Regardless of his true identity, when Dalton died in 1951, his tombstone was inscribed with the name of the man he said he was. It reads:

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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