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Stacy Conradt

Paul Revere

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 cemeteries to 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 photo library of interesting tombstones to good use.

Listen my children, and you shall hear, of the midnight ride of Paul Revere. You probably know that the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem is catchy, but historically inaccurate. But here are a few things you may not know.

Mr. Revere almost certainly never shouted the line famously attributed to him: “The British are coming! The British are coming!” Because there were Redcoats stationed everywhere, and because many colonists were sympathizers, blatantly announcing the arrival of the Brits in such a manner could have been a fatal mistake, and at the very least would have compromised the mission. Additionally, most colonists still thought of themselves as British, so to say "The British are coming!" wouldn't have been terribly clear. "The Regulars are coming out" is how he actually announced the impending arrival to villagers.

Another misconception: Although the silversmith is hailed as the hero of this story, he wasn’t the only man to ride through towns warning people—in fact, he wasn’t even the most successful one.

The original plan was for Revere and William Dawes to get news of the invasion to Concord, where military supplies were stored, and also warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams, who had been targeted for capture. To get to them, the pair rode across Somerville, Medford, and Arlington, warning patriots as they passed through. In Lexington, they came across Samuel Prescott, a doctor who was probably coming home from a booty call. (At least, that’s how the history books paint the late-night encounter when they say he was “returning from a lady friend’s house at the awkward hour of 1 a.m.”) Prescott joined them in their quest.

About three miles into the six-mile ride to Concord, the trio was intercepted by Redcoats. Dawes and Prescott managed to get away, while Revere was captured and interrogated. Redcoats threatened several times to “blow [his] brains out,” which is something you don’t learn during this unit in elementary school. They eventually took his horse and abandoned him in the middle of road. He was able to walk to town to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams, but Prescott is the real hero—he was the only one who made it all the way to Concord.

So why did Revere get all the credit? First of all, he was the most famous, even then. Secondly, Longfellow’s 1863 poem, “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” cemented that fame. Historians have joked that the only reason it wasn’t “The Midnight Ride of William Dawes” is because “Revere” was easier to rhyme.

After the war, Revere tried his hand in the Massachusetts militia before turning to silversmithing and ironworking, which, as you might know, he did pretty well at. By 1792 he was one of the best bell-casters in America, which gave Paul Revere & Sons foundry a steady line of work. The company moved into rolled copper production in 1801—in fact, the Revere Copper Company was hired to cover the original dome of the Massachusetts State House.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

On May 10, 1818, Revere died at the ripe old age of 83. He was buried at the Granary Burying Ground on Tremont Street in Boston, which is also the final resting place of Sam Adams, John Hancock, and five of the Boston Massacre victims.

Upon his death, The Boston Intelligence wrote, “Seldom has the tomb closed upon a life so honorable and useful.” Since then, we’ve honored one of our most famous patriots by not only naming a pizza chain after him, but also a 1960s American band that emulated the sound of the British Invasion. Let’s hope Revere had a sense of humor.

See all entries in our Grave Sightings series here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

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]

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