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John Wilkes Booth's Accomplice

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"I'm mad! I'm mad!" Lewis Powell shouted as he burst out of the Secretary of State's house, threw himself on his horse, and rode away. Across town, Abraham Lincoln slumped forward in his theater chair, a laugh forever frozen on his face.

The year was 1865, and the scene at Ford's Theatre was the end of a President and the beginning of a legend. But many have forgotten that Lincoln's assassination was just one facet of a three-pronged plot to take down America—and fewer still know about the mysterious Confederate deserter who became John Wilkes Booth's right-hand man.

Was he a member of the Confederate Secret Service? A soldier who used a Union soldier's skull as an ashtray? A suave city man, or a country Baptist with a simple mind? During 21 years of life and countless aliases, Lewis Powell adopted all of these identities and more. After deserting the flailing Confederate Army, Powell met John Wilkes Booth, one of the most famous actors of his day, in a Baltimore hotel. Over dinner, Booth recognized a kindred spirit. He immediately recruited Powell to the cause that obsessed him: his plan to kidnap President Lincoln in retribution for his political views.

From that day forward, the two men became extremely close and worked together on their plot. They even watched Lincoln's last speech ever, one about reconstruction, from the White House lawn. Angered, the conspirators knew kidnapping was not enough. They decided they must murder the President in order to bring down the entire American government.

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The conspiracy that followed revolved around three simultaneous acts of violence calculated to create chaos and fear in the Union government and punish Booth's enemies for their roles in the bloody war that was ending. While Booth killed Lincoln at Ford's Theatre, Powell would murder Secretary of State William H. Seward, and George Atzerodt, another conspirator, would shoot Vice President Andrew Johnson. But the plot went wrong from the start. Atzerodt, overcome by fear, could only get as far as the hotel bar where Johnson was staying (he drank all night, but never shot the vice president).

On the night of April 14, Powell and another conspirator, David Herold, made their way to the Secretary of State's residence. Seward was inside, recovering from a concussion, broken jaw, and other injuries following a recent carriage accident. Powell entered Seward's house pretending to deliver medicine while Herold waited out front. Powell pushed his way past Seward's butler, who ran into the night to get help. This frightened Herold, who immediately took off.

Once inside, Powell attempted to shoot Seward's son Frederick, but his revolver misfired. Powell beat him to the floor and made his way to the room where Seward was recovering. The Secretary of State was being tended to by his daughter and by Sergeant George F. Robinson, an army nurse. Powell slashed Robinson and punched Seward's daughter in the face. He then climbed atop Seward and stabbed and slashed at his head and neck. Because of his injuries from the carriage accident, Seward was wearing a metal splint around his jaw. This protected him from any would-be fatal blows, but Powell managed to slash his cheek and face. Though he survived the attack, the scars would remain with Seward for life.

Seward's other son Augustus burst into the room and wrestled with Powell. Powell slashed at Augustus and got away, but not before encountering a messenger in the hallway (who Powell stabbed, as well). Powell escaped, but he was a stranger on the run in Washington, D.C. Helpless without Herold, he disappeared for three days, wandering the streets or hiding alone. Finally, he returned to the boarding house where Booth and the other conspirators rendezvoused before the assassination. As he got there, police were taking the owner of the house and others away for questioning. Powell claimed he was just a laborer there to dig a gutter, but the police were suspicious because he was wearing expensive clothing, so they took him into custody when he was positively identified.

Powell's well-kept hands are in shackles in this photograph Alexander Gardner took after his arrest. Powell looks easy-going, relaxed, and strangely modern for a man on the wrong side of history.

By the time Powell was transferred to a monitor ship by the authorities, John Wilkes Booth was dead. Two months later, Powell was found guilty of conspiracy and hanged. During his time in chains, he reportedly told tall tales about his Confederate days, chewed tobacco, and attempted suicide by bashing his head into the walls of his cell. Despite his behavior, doctors refused to acknowledge he was insane.

On July 7, 1865, he was hanged alongside Mary Surratt (the owner of the rendezvous point), David Herold, and George Atzerodt.

But the strange case of Lewis Powell didn’t end there. Like those of his co-conspirators, Powell's corpse was cast into a coffin and temporarily buried. Years later, the four bodies were released to their families. There are multiple assertions that no one showed up to claim Powell's. Others maintain that his family had taken some of his remains. Either way, no one knows where his remains are, except for his skull, which popped up in a most unlikely place.

In 1991, Lewis Powell's skull was found in the Native American collection at the Smithsonian Museum. After some research, it was confirmed as his. It sat there for over a century.

References: The Orlando Sentinel, "Mystery Still Shrouds Story Of Lewis Powell" by Jim Robinson (July 5, 1992); Alias "Paine": Lewis Thornton Powell, the Mystery Man of the Lincoln Conspiracy, by Betty J. Ownsbey (McFarland, 2005); Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, by Edward Steers (University Press of Kentucky, 2005); American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, by Michael W. Kauffman (Random House, 2005); The Lincoln Assassination Encyclopedia, by Edward Steers (Harper Perennial, 2010)

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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