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The Jewish Pirates Who Ruled the Caribbean

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As European nations pushed westward in a mad dash for colonies from the 16th to 18th centuries, the Caribbean became a pirate’s paradise. Legendary sailors like Edward "Blackbeard" Teach and William "Captain" Kidd famously stalked the waters in search of vulnerable trading vessels. What’s less well known is that among these rogue sailors’ ranks were displaced European Jews. Pirating was one of the era’s more egalitarian professions—there’s little time for discrimination if you need to work together while running from royal fleets. This sense of relative equality could be one of the reasons that attracted a number of Jews to adventurous lives on the high seas. 

Until recently, history books rarely noted the exploits of Jewish pirates, despite their surprising prevalence and success, but historical graveyards unearthed in the Caribbean within the last decade revealed tombstones with Stars of David, Hebrew, and skull and crossbones insignia. 

Ferdinand and Isabella Make Piracy Possible 

Just like many other New World immigrants, Jews crossed the Atlantic in hopes of finding better lives and lucrative careers, increasingly difficult goals in Europe. For centuries, Jews felt the wrath of the Inquisition as it swept across the continent, and a new wave of anti-Semitism coincided almost exactly with the first voyages across the Atlantic. In the very same month that Columbus set sail in search of a new route to Asia, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella ordered the expulsion of all Jews and Muslims from Spain, and Portugal followed suit a few years later. 

Many fled to more tolerant Middle Eastern countries such as the Ottoman Empire, but a large number eventually made their way to the new colonies, where they became sugar farmers, merchants, and even politicians. In fact, so many Jews occupied Jamaican legislative seats that, in the 19th century, Jamaica’s parliament was the only one in the world to not hold session on Saturdays because of Shabbat. 

By 1720, an estimated 20 percent of Kingston’s residents were descendants of Spanish-Portuguese Jews, and a few of these Jews eventually felt the urge to seek a more adventurous life on the ocean. Captaining ships with names like the Queen Esther, the Prophet Samuel, and the Shield of Abraham, Jewish sailors began roaming the island coasts in search of riches, usually obtained under questionable legal circumstances. These Jewish pirates most frequently attacked Spanish and Portuguese ships, payback for generations of injustice. 

"The Great Jew" and the Pirate Rabbi 

Moshe Cohen Hanarkis (or Moses Cohen Henriques, depending on your translation) was one of the most famous of these revenge-seekers. In 1628, he helped the Dutch West India Company’s Admiral Piet Hein pull one of the most lucrative sea heists in pirating history, stealing enormous amounts of gold and silver from a Spanish fleet off the coast of Cuba. Today’s adjustments would put the treasure’s value at over $1 billion. Not long after, Hanarkis established his own pirate island off the coast of Brazil, and once the colony was recaptured by Portugal, he became an adviser to the infamous Captain Henry Morgan. Surprisingly, although his exact date of death is unknown, Hanarkis never faced a single trial for his crimes. 

Hanarkis wasn’t alone. A captain known only as Sinan, or "The Great Jew" by his Spanish targets, worked alongside the dreaded Hayreddin Barbarossa. Born in Turkey, this Sephardic sailor included a six-pointed star on his ship’s flag and was so good at maritime navigation that it was rumored he employed black magic to find his way. In 1538, Sinan was instrumental in defeating the Spanish-backed Genoan fleet at the Battle of Preveza, a crippling blow to Spain’s attempts to secure the Barbary Coast.

These escapades weren’t limited to Jewish laypeople, either. Rabbi Shmuel Palacci is said to have taken part in some pirate raids against Spanish and Dutch ships. As a pious rebbe, he made sure that his crew donated a tenth of their loot to charity in a Jewish custom known as ma'aser, and even kept kosher aboard his ship.

The Jewish Pirate Who Helped Win the War of 1812 

Perhaps the most influential of all Jewish pirates was Jean Lafitte, the historical figure known for his key role in Andrew Jackson’s success at the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. In the controversial Journal of Jean Lafitte—which may have been written by him, may have been written by someone else during the 19th century, or may be a modern forgery—he claims that his mother's father was a Spanish Jew. After the battle of New Orleans, Lafitte returned to pirating and eventually set up a pirate community on Galveston Island. 

Additional Sources: Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, Ed Kritzler, 2008

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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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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