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The Many Fires That Plagued P.T. Barnum

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He was obsessed with money. He didn’t have time to bother with things like tact or good taste. Undoubtedly one of history’s greatest showmen, P.T. Barnum birthed some of America’s greatest amusements. So why did two of his most famous landmarks burn down in spectacular fashion?

By the 1860s, Barnum was one of the most famous men in the world. His tours and shows may have been sensationalistic and even trashy, but they were huge hits in a country that was learning how to enjoy its rare moments of leisure in a new way. Among his accomplishments were hoaxes, freak shows, and something he called The American Museum.

From a modern perspective, Barnum’s “museum” wasn’t a museum of all. It was a cabinet of the weird and the gauche—a bizarre mishmash of history, taxidermy, technology, and outright exploitation. Its rooms boasted oddities like “THE GREAT MODEL OF NIAGARA FALLS, WITH REAL WATER!” and a tiny doll house in which “General Tom Thumb,” a 32-inch man coached and trained by Barnum himself, lived and entertained.

To say the museum was a hit would be an understatement: thousands of visitors forked over a quarter to visit each day. But hard times hit when Barnum’s museum burned not once, but three times during the 1860s.

William England // Getty

The first fire, in 1864, was perhaps the weirdest: as the Civil War peaked, members of the Confederate Secret Service plotted to burn down several prominent hotels in New York City in a bid to disrupt that year’s presidential election, rob treasuries, and free Confederate POWs. They didn’t succeed (the plot was foiled in part by rebels who were intimidated by upped police presence in the city), but a couple of weeks later they went to try again, and one would-be arsonist decided to deviate from the plan when he set fire to Barnum’s museum, which was across the street from the famed Astor House.

The crime is thought to have been partially motivated by Barnum’s outspoken anti-slavery views (even though Barnum, always a man of contrasts, actually owned slaves at one point and did much to further blackface and minstrel shows in the U.S.). Drunk and angry, arsonist Robert Cobb Kennedy walked into the museum, threw an incendiary device known as “Greek Fire,” and walked out again.

Chaos broke out in the museum as thousands of visitors poured out onto the street, but nobody died and property damage was not catastrophic. That wasn’t the case in 1865, when all hell broke loose at the museum. A furnace in an adjacent restaurant sparked the blaze—or did it? By that time, Barnum was even more popular and visible: he was speaking in his capacity as Republican member of the Connecticut House of Representatives when he was told the museum was completely destroyed.

The New York Times mourned the fire, which, "while greatly injuring and materially impoverishing its enterprising and public-spirited proprietor, did a damage to this and the adjacent communities, which neither time nor money can replace.” It memorialized the museum with an extensive catalog of its contents, which included everything from a fortune teller to an aquarium complete with whales to a woman demonstrating a new-fangled sewing machine.

Barnum vowed to rebuild the museum, and soon he had reopened his curiosity. But in 1868, it burned down a third time—in the middle of a cold snap in March, a huge blaze swept through the building. As firefighters battled the fire, the museum froze over in an eerie spectacle almost as amazing as the rebuilt museum itself. Again, Confederate spies were suspected, although the cause of the blaze is uncertain. What is clear is that “a menagerie” of rare animals perished.

The showman suffered even more fires as the years went on. Though the 1868 fire was the last straw in terms of the museum business, Barnum switched his attention to the circus business. But in 1872, a grand circus building called the Hippotheatron burned to the ground, too. Barnum’s circus animals may have died, but his dream of a gigantic entertainment palace didn’t: the site of this final blaze ended up becoming Madison Square Garden.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]