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Revisiting the First 'Trial of the Century,' More Than 215 Years Later

Like calling any up-and-coming actor who lands a plum role “The Next Big Thing,” assigning the “Trial of the Century” moniker to any legal proceeding that gains even a tiny bit of national or international attention has become almost rote (see: Casey Anthony, Oscar Pistorius, and/or Jodi Arias). Many people point to the 1907 trial of Harry K. Thaw, who was tried for the murder of famed architect Stanford White, as the first recorded use of the phrase. But the real first “Trial of the Century” happened more than 100 years earlier, when frenemies Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr teamed up to defend Levi Weeks—a well-to-do young man accused of murdering his girlfriend—while the whole world looked on.

On the evening of December 22, 1799, Gulielma Sands—a young Quaker woman known as Elma to her friends and family—left the West Village boarding house where she was staying and never returned. Several days later, an earmuff that Sands had been wearing on the night she disappeared was discovered floating in the Manhattan Well, at the intersection of Greene and Spring Streets (the well is still there and, while not open to the public, is occasionally available to take a peek at on request). Shortly thereafter, the well was probed, and on January 2, 1800, Sands’s body was discovered at the bottom of the well.

Immediately, all eyes turned toward Levi Weeks, a fellow resident at Sands’s boarding house—and her alleged paramour. In fact, Sands confided to her cousin, Hope (another boarding house resident), that she and Weeks had planned to marry. For his part, Weeks denied that any such romance existed.

Weeks had another thing going for him: His brother, Ezra, was one of the most prominent builders of the time, and he used his connections to gather the best defense team around. And what a team it was: Individually, Henry Brockholst Livingston (a future Supreme Court Justice), Aaron Burr, and Alexander Hamilton were three of New York City’s top attorneys. Together, they became the first legal “dream team.”

Coupling the salacious nature of the crime (rumors swirled that Sands was pregnant, which was not true) and its extreme violence (it was confirmed that Sands’s neck was broken before she was thrown into the well) with the many prominent people who were involved in its proceedings, the public’s interest in the trial was piqued, and it became the first transcribed trial in the history of the United States. (You can read the full transcription of it [PDF].)

The trial itself commenced more than 215 years ago, on March 31, 1800, and it didn’t take long for Weeks’s team to prove exactly why they were considered three of the most brilliant legal minds of the time. (It also helped that Hamilton and Burr, while not the closest of friends, were actually on speaking terms.)

Assistant Attorney General Cadwallader D. Colden (who would become New York City’s 54th mayor 18 years later) spoke first on behalf of the prosecution, acknowledging his formidable competition in his opening statement:

"In a cause which appears so greatly to have excited the public mind, in which the prisoner has thought it necessary for his defense, to employ so many advocates distinguished for their eloquence and abilities, so vastly my superior in learning, experience and professional rank; it is not wonderful that I should rise to address you under the weight of embarrassments which set circumstances actually excite."

Aaron Burr gave the opening statement for the defense’s side, and didn’t shy away from playing up the superlatives that Colden had already sent his team’s way. “The patience which you have listened to this lengthy and tedious detail of testimony is honorable to your characters,” Burr told the courtroom. “It evinces your solicitude to discharge the awful duties which are imposed upon you and it affords a happy presage, that your minds are not infected by that blind and indiscriminating prejudice which had already marked the prisoner for its victim. You have relieved me from my greatest anxiety, for I know the unexampled industry that has been exerted to destroy the reputation of the accused, and to immolate him at the shrine of persecution without the solemnity of a candid and impartial trial. I know that hatred, revenge and cruelty, all their vindictive and ferocious passions have assembled in terrible array and exerted every engine to gratify their malice.”

The prosecution was clearly outmatched, both in their oratory powers to sway the jury and in their stockpile of actual evidence against Weeks, which was largely circumstantial. The trial lasted two days, back in a time when cases rarely took longer than one—the jury slept at City Hall—finally concluding at 2:25 a.m. on April 2. Exhausted, the prosecution asked for an adjournment before presenting closing arguments, which the judge denied, deeming them unnecessary. Before sending the jury in to deliberate, the judge noted that “the court were unanimously of the opinion that the proof was insufficient to warrant a verdict against [Weeks] and that with this general charge they committed the prisoner’s case to their consideration.”

It took the jury just five minutes to come back with their verdict: not guilty. Levi Weeks exited the courtroom as a free man.

Four years later, one member of Weeks’ dream team would be dead at the hands of another member when Burr shot Hamilton during their infamous duel in Weehawken, New Jersey.

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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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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