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Stacy Conradt

Abraham Lincoln

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.

One hundred and forty-nine years ago today, Abraham Lincoln breathed his last on a bed in William Petersen’s boarding house, across the street from Ford’s Theater.

But you already know that story. This isn’t the story of Lincoln’s life, or even of his death—it’s the story of Lincoln’s earthly remains, which went on quite a journey after Abe died on April 15, 1865.

In addition to Washington, D.C., of course, Lincoln’s funeral procession via train spanned six states, with stops in 13 cities. He was joined on the train by another coffin—that of his son, Willie, who had died of typhoid fever in 1862 at the age of 11. Once the Lincolns finally reached their final destination of Springfield, Ill., their caskets were taken to then-rural Oak Ridge Cemetery at Mary Todd’s insistence. Her decision annoyed city officials, who wanted Abe to be placed in the middle of town to promote Springfield in death as he had in life. When they pushed back, Mary threatened to have him buried in D.C. instead. They relented.

The Oak Ridge site wasn’t ready for the Lincoln burials, so they were interred at the cemetery’s receiving vault to await relocation to what would eventually be a massive monument. But even the temporary housing was only temporary.

On December 21, 1865, Abe and Willie were relocated to another temporary vault near the construction of the Lincoln Tomb. This move reunited them with another family member—Abe and Mary’s second son, Eddie, who died in 1850 just before his fourth birthday. The Lincolns were still living in Springfield at the time of Eddie’s death, so his coffin just had to be brought over from another cemetery in town.

The three Lincolns remained undisturbed until 1871, when they were finally moved to the tomb structure, though it was still under construction. In 1874, they were moved to a white marble sarcophagus in the tomb, just in time for the public opening of the monument on October 15. But Abe’s travels weren’t over just yet.

In 1876, an Irish crime boss decided that stealing Lincoln’s body and holding it for ransom was the best way to secure the release of one of the members of his counterfeiting ring. As the presidential elections of 1876 (Rutherford B. Hayes vs Samuel Tilden) were taking place on November 7, members of Big Jim Kennally’s gang, including a hired graverobber, crept into the cemetery, made their way into the unguarded tomb with no trouble at all, and then opened up the sarcophagus by cutting the padlock off with a file. The one thing they weren’t counting on: the 500-pound cedar coffin. They sent the graverobber to fetch a wagon, but instead, the man—really an informant for the Secret Service—alerted the police. Each of the men involved eventually received a one-year prison sentence for their ghastly attempt at graverobbing.

Though the attempt failed, the tomb’s caretaker was alarmed that such an amateur operation could come so close to succeeding. Custodian John Carroll Power had Lincoln's body moved or examined at least six times after that, either in response to grave robbery threats or due to renovations.

Finally, in 1901, the final crypt inside of the Lincoln Tomb was ready. To make sure none of the grave robbery threats had actually succeeded, the coffin was opened so the body could be positively identified. A total of 23 people viewed the corpse and unanimously agreed that it was, indeed, the president. Though his eyebrows were gone, the rest of Lincoln's features were easily recognizable, including the wart on his cheek and his coarse, black hair. His suit was covered with yellow mold, and pieces of red fabric, believed to be a decayed American flag, were also in the coffin. Though Abe had been dead for more than 35 years at the time, experts believe that his body was embalmed and “refreshed” so many times on his funeral tour that it may have stunted the process of decay.

After seeing the president with their own eyes, groundskeepers prepared to lay Lincoln to rest one last time. Under instructions from Robert Lincoln—the only surviving member of the immediate Lincoln family—the president’s coffin was encased in a steel cage, then buried 10 feet underground and covered with concrete. That's where he remains to this day. Mary Todd and three of his sons are buried there as well. (Robert, the only son to survive to adulthood, is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.)

See the other entries in our Grave Sightings 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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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]