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The Eccentric British Headmaster Who Never Existed

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istock (man) / getty images (cambridge)

For several weeks in 1948, strange letters began circulating through the British postal system. Most were addressed to headmasters at elite schools across the country; all were written by one H. Rochester Sneath, headmaster of a minor public school called Selhurst. Not a single one of the letters' recipients had ever heard of Sneath or Selhurst—because neither ever existed.

The eccentric headmaster of Selhurst, said to be located near Petworth, Sussex, penned a series of letters to other school leaders, full of weird complaints and even more bizarre pieces of advice. Sneath asked for help in dealing with rats and exorcisms, requested help finding a sex education teacher, and discussed plans for "an exhibition of Schoolboy Art [for] South America,” whatever that might have been. 

To the headmaster at Oundle in Northamptonshire, he wrote seeking help for an infestation of rodents:

No less than sixty-four rats of various shapes and sizes have been discovered in the precincts of the School with the result that three Matrons have had nervous breakdowns, and the wife of the Chairman of the Board of Governors, who was lunching with me and my wife, had a fit of hysteria upon seeing no less than six of these creatures, and collapsed in a heap, having to be carried away in a blanket.

To the headmaster of Tonbridge in Kent, whom he addressed as “Rootie,” he wrote:

You will doubtless remember old ‘Tubby’ Sneath—well it will give you a helluva shock, you old bounder, because last year I took on the Headship here. Do you remember prophesying my early death in a South American brothel? I must say that I never imagined that you would get muddled up in this racket either, and imagine my surprise when I returned from India to be told that the man whom I had carried home, drunk as a coot seven times a week, should have got a job. At least I presume the Headmaster of Tonbridge is you!

The alarmed headmaster wrote back:

I have received from you a letter opening ‘Dear Rootie’. It is not intended for me though addressed to the Headmaster of Tonbridge. In view of the contents of the letter I should be obliged if you would send me the name of the person to whom you have written as Headmaster of Tonbridge and on what the incorrect information is based; for if it is widely presumed that he is Headmaster of Tonbridge that needs correcting for reasons obvious to you.

The head of Marlborough College, one F.M. Heywood, was also a frequent target. On March 15, 1948, Sneath wrote a letter asking how Heywood had “managed to engineer” the school’s recent visit from the King and Queen. (Sneath explained that Selhurst was hoping for its own royal visit in celebration of its 300th anniversary, noting that “the nephew of a Balkan monarch” had once been a student.) Heyworth wrote back in a huff, saying "I did nothing whatever to engineer the recent royal visit … No doubt the fact that the King’s Private Secretary, the Lord Chancellor and the Archbishop  of Canterbury are all Old Marlburians had something to do with the matter.”

Not to be put off, Sneath wrote to Heywood again. This time, he wanted to discuss Mr. Robert Agincourt, a former French teacher at Selhurst now said to be applying for a post at Marlborough. Sneath wrote to warn against this possibility, and several paragraphs are worth quoting in full:

You will understand that nothing that I have to say about Mr. Agincourt is actuated by any personal malice but I feel it my duty to inform you of the impression that he gave while he was at Selhurst.

During his brief stay no less than five boys were removed from the school as a result of his influence, and three of the Matrons had nervous breakdowns. The pictures on the walls of his rooms made a visiting Bishop shudder and would certainly rule out another Royal visit. His practices were described by the Chairman of the County Hospital as ‘Hunnish.’ The prominent wart on his nose was wittily described as ‘the blot on the twentieth century’ by a visiting conjuror.

As you cannot fail to have noticed, his personal appearance is against him, and, after one memorable Carol Service, a titled Lady who was sitting next to him collapsed in a heap. He was once observed climbing a tree in the School Grounds naked at night and on another occasion he threw a flower pot at the wife of the Chairman of the Board of Governors.

Heywood responded that he'd never heard of the man. Sneath wrote back saying that Agincourt had abandoned the idea of an academic career and had become a waiter in a Greek restaurant in Soho. He also asked for the name of a good private detective, and a competent nursery maid. 

Sneath targeted more than just headmasters. He invited George Bernard Shaw to speak at the school's 300th anniversary celebrations, “in view of the long-standing connection between your late wife’s family and Selhurst school.” (Shaw wrote back: “Never heard of any such connection.”) He wrote to Scottish sculptor William Reid Dick asking him to create a statue of Selhurst’s founder “Puritan leader Ebenezer Okeshot." (Dick was interested, but Sneath never followed up.) He also asked Giles Gilbert Scott to design a new building at the school (the architect politely declined).

Most of Sneath’s correspondents fell for his ruse, but some were smart enough to smell a prank. One was John Sinnott, headmaster of Wimbledon College. During their correspondence about a potential exorcism designed to rid Selhurst of the ghost of a matron who committed suicide after having been seduced by a housemaster, Sinnott requested a packet of salt "capable of being taken up in pinches.”

Sneath’s unmasking came after he wrote to The Daily Worker, complaining that he was being prevented from teaching Russian at Selhurst. A curious reporter from the News Review investigated, and after being unable to verify any of Selhurst’s contact information, or any other trace of its official existence, exposed the hoax. The source of the letters: Humphrey Berkeley, a future Conservative Minister of Parliament, then an undergrad at Cambridge University. After Berkeley was exposed, he was formally rebuked by Cambridge officials, and forbidden from visiting the school for two years.

Berkeley went on to earn his degree from Cambridge, and was elected as a Conservative MP in 1959, the same year Margaret Thatcher got her start in Parliament (Berkeley's political career was considered more promising). His political life was relatively unremarkable, but in 1974 he published an illustrated collection of the Sneath letters, entitled The Life And Death Of Rochester Sneath: A Youthful Frivolity. Given his political post, Berkeley took care to downplay his mischievousness, calling Sneath’s existence “the only practical joke I have ever played in my life.” Today Sneath lives on not only in the book, but with his own Twitter account, appropriately used to annoy teachers around the world.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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