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5 Non-Lincoln Facts About Our American Cousin

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It’s a show that lives in infamy. The once-beloved comedy Our American Cousin was suddenly transformed into the most notorious play ever written on April 14, 1865. That night, John Wilkes Booth didn’t just assassinate Abraham Lincoln. He also permanently scarred one of the era’s most successful stage productions. Let’s take a brief behind-the-scenes look at Our American Cousin and its enduring legacy.

1. One of Its Characters Became a 19th-Century Meme.

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Bumbling through Our American Cousin is lovable dolt Lord Dundreary. Though his lines are few, seasoned actor Edward Askew Sothern’s strange hairdo and flair for physical comedy helped make the character wildly popular. Drundreary also had a tendency to get his proverbs mixed up—he’d often shout nonsensical adages like “Birds of a feather gather no moss.” For several years afterwards, similarly-confused statements were colloquially known as “Drundrearyisms.” 

2. It Inspired Numerous Sequels & Spin-Offs.

Playwright Tom Taylor penned Our American Cousin in 1858, but had no involvement in the barrage of sequels that hoped to cash in on its success. Our Female American Cousin, a hasty knock-off, was released by Charles Gayler the very next year. Also written were Our American Cousin at Home and Dundreary Married and Done For.

3. The Public Loved It Despite Mixed Reviews.

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Our American Cousin wasn’t exactly met with universal acclaim. Sothern’s performance was singled out as “the funniest thing in the world” by a British newspaper critic, but the show itself was often accused of lacking substance, and lead actor Joseph Jefferson once damningly conceded that it had “little literary merit." Despite this, Our American Cousin struck a chord with everyday citizens. After running for a then-impressive five consecutive months in New York, the production enjoyed a lengthy stint abroad at London’s Theatre Royal Haymarket

4. It Starred the First Great Female Stage Manager In U.S. History.

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Before Laura Keene (1826-1873) came along, American show business was effectively a boy’s club. An actress-turned-manager, Keene changed all that for good and became the first woman to achieve lasting success in the industry. She even had a theater named for her: Laura Keene’s New Theatre was built in Manhattan in 1856. Her assorted duties included overseeing the facility, directing her actors, and editing scripts. It was here that Our American Cousin debuted two years later. Under Keene’s leadership, the show became a smash hit.  

She even took the stage herself for several performances, assuming the prominent role of Florence Trenchard, a young aristocrat. Keene was on stage the night Lincoln was murdered at Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C. Legend has it that, after the shooting, Keene rushed to his box and cradled the dying president’s head in her lap (though this story remains unconfirmed). 

5. Our American Cousin Was Adapted Into an Opera in 2008.

Written by composer Eric Sawyer, this opera chronicles Lincoln’s death as seen through the eyes of various onstage cast and crew members involved with the original play.

BONUS: It Was Used As the Punchline of a Cruel “Family Guy” Cutaway Gag.

In the season 5 episode “Whistle While Your Wife Works,” Brian moans that breaking up with his new girlfriend is “gonna be tougher than the reviews for ‘Our American Cousin.’” We then see the ensemble nonchalantly searching for any mention of their performances in one of Lincoln’s obituaries.

The joke was a clear reference to the commonly used one-liner, “Apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?”

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.