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The Morbid Way Colonists Protested King George’s Stamp Act

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Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. 

If the phrase “taxation without representation” evokes images of Washington, D.C. license plates, you might want to look a bit further back—250 years, in fact—to a law that enraged American colonists. The Stamp Act, which forced British colonies to pay taxes on paper products like playing cards and newspapers, sparked fierce debate and a series of fascinating protests.

By the time the British Parliament landed on the idea of taxing the colonies to pay for troops stationed there after the French and Indian War, the colonies were already irritated with King George’s Parliament. The war had taken nine years and drained Britain’s coffers, and the government back home was irked by the ongoing expense of maintaining their increasingly headstrong colonies. So they devised the tax John Adams would call “the enormous engine fabricated by the British Parliament for battering down the rights and liberties of America”—a law that struck at that metallic heart of the colonies, the printing press.

The act King George signed into law 250 years ago was deceptively simple. It imposed duties on pretty much everything that could be printed or written on a piece of paper, from wills to summons to playing cards and newspapers. In order to comply with the act, colonists were required to purchase special stamped paper produced in England with English money, not colonial dollars. Suddenly, the colonies’ thriving printing business was under fire—and colonists, in turn, were fired up. It was the first time the overseas government had ever tried to use its colonies to fill its coffers, and colonists—many of whom had fled to the Americas seeking religious tolerance and free expression—were irate. And so they did what any sensible eighteenth-century colonists would do: expressed their discontent in a delightfully morbid fashion.

All over the colonies, disgruntled subjects staged elaborate “funerals for liberty,” complete with eulogies, well-dressed mourners, real coffins, and staged resurrections. Boston protestors took the funeral metaphor one step further when they hung an effigy of the local stamp master on a tree in the Boston Common. “It’s a glorious sight to See a Stamp-man hanging on a tree,” wrote one witness. They staged a mock funeral for the effigy after a raucous parade during which they paused often to kick and “stamp” the dummy before tearing down the stamp office with their bare hands.

But that was just the start of the colonists’ ghoulish rebellion. Though some newspapers preferred to simply print on unstamped paper (sans masthead) in protest, others went under with great fanfare. The Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser changed its masthead to include a funereal new design that announced the paper was “expiring: in hopes of a resurrection to life again.”

“The TIMES are Dreadful Dismal Doleful Dolorous, and DOLLAR-LESS,” it declared. And instead of the required stamp, it merely showed a skull and crossbones inscribed with the words “An emblem of the effects of the STAMP - O! the fatal Stamp.” It was just one of countless newspapers that used the language of mourning to sound the death knell of freedom of speech in the colonies.

The colonists’ mock mourning and lavish grief worked: The Stamp Act was not long for this world and was repealed after less than a year as law. With the stroke of a pen, King George had unwittingly created a monster—an America that was as well-organized and effective at protest as it was angry. As colonial printers celebrated the Stamp Act’s repeal in 1766, they celebrated one last funeral with a famous political cartoon mourning “The Repeal or the Funeral of Miss Americ-Stamp” … complete with a dog doing its business on the pompous priest’s leg.

Sources: John Adams; Full Text of The Stamp Act; Letter from Cyrus Baldwin to Loammi Baldwin, August 15, 1765; The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History; “No Stamped Paper to Be Had,” November 7, 1765; The Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser, October 31, 1765; “The Colonial Newspapers and the Stamp Act,” The New England Quarterly Vol. 8, No. 1.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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