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That Time America Attacked the British Isles

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We usually think of the American Revolutionary War as being fought strictly in North America, but naval battles were also fought in European waters both by American forces and by their French and Spanish Allies. The Continental Navy was dwarfed by the size and strength of the Royal Navy, and was primarily tasked with harassing merchant and cargo ships to disrupt British commerce and supply lines.

After some success at this in the North Atlantic and the Irish Sea, though, an American captain named John Paul Jones (above) decided on a bold plan: he would sabotage the English port of Whitehaven, in what would be the only direct attack on the British mainland during the war.

Jones chose Whitehaven not because it was particularly valuable—though it did host a few hundred supply ships—but because he used to sail from it as a child and knew he could find his way into, around, and out of it in the dark. The plan was to burn British ships that would be moored close together and stuck in low tide in Whitehaven’s harbor.

In the early morning of April 23, 1778, Jones split 30 volunteers between two boats and rowed from his ship, the Ranger, to the forts that guarded the north and south ends of the harbor. Each crew—armed with pistols, swords and combustible “candles” made of canvas dipped in brimstone—was to capture a fort and then begin to set the nearby ships ablaze. 

Strong tides and shifting winds slowed their journey in and the boats didn’t reach the harbor until almost dawn, giving them little time to work under the cover of darkness. Jones and his crew scaled the walls of the southern fort by climbing on each other’s shoulders, captured the guards, and spiked the cannons so they couldn’t be used against the raiders during their retreat. 

Meanwhile, the other crew’s lanterns ran out of fuel by the time they reached the north fort and they were unable to light their candles. Instead of securing the fort, they raided a nearby public house to find a light, but reportedly got distracted and “made very loose with the liquor” they found there. Some of the men would later claim they failed to take the fort because they’d been scared off by strange noises. 

As Jones left the south fort and headed toward the docks, he was dismayed to find that none of the ships were on fire yet, and his own crew’s lantern had also gone out. With the sun coming up and the townspeople beginning to stir, the captain decided to concentrate his efforts on the largest ship in the harbor, the Thompson, which was full of coal bound for Ireland. After finding a light at a house, the saboteurs lit their candles and tossed them into the ship’s holds, and set fire to a barrel of tar that had been spilled on its deck. 

The fire began to grow nicely, but the earlier confusion at the north end of the harbor put another kink in Jones' plans. One of the sailors, an Irishman who had only enlisted in the Continental Navy to get back across the Atlantic to home, had snuck away while the crew was occupied at the pub and began going house to house banging on doors to warn people that buildings and boats were going to be burned by “pirates.” 

The townspeople rushed to the harbor, putting out the fire on the Thompson and forcing the Americans to retreat. Jones and his men, minus the traitor, ran toward their boats with three prisoners—including a man they had found doing some early morning fishing from a pier—and headed back to the Ranger

Once aboard the ship, Jones decided to sail to Kirkcudbright, Scotland and kidnap the Earl of Selkirk, hoping he could exchange the earl and his other prisoners for Americans who had been captured by the British. When they arrived, the earl was away in London, so the crew settled for stealing his silver tableware—including a teapot still wet from breakfast—before heading back to sea (Jones eventually returned the stolen items to the earl after the war). 

In the end, the raid did little physical damage. Whitehaven’s citizens were able to extinguish the fire on the Thompson before the flames could spread to the other ships or the harbor buildings, and estimates of the damage ran from 250 to 1250 pounds. But the psychic blow was greater, and the British were rattled by the thought that the American rebels could reach them at home and increased the fortifications along their shores. 

Jones eventually retired to Paris and died there in 1792. In 1906, the U.S. ambassador to France recovered Jones’ body and returned it to America for re-burial at the United States Naval Academy. For his exploits during the Revolution, Jones was celebrated at home as one of the “fathers of the American Navy,” but remembered as a mere pirate in England. Whitehaven did get over his attack, though, and at the inaugural Whitehaven Maritime Festival in 1999, the harbor commissioners proclaimed an official pardon for Jones’ “act of gross aggression” and offered to waive the fees for the use of the harbor for one American Navy vessel once a year. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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iStock
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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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