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Steam Train Maury, the Hobo King

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amazon (cover) / istock (background)

In 2006, the most decorated hobo in United States history died.

Before you (mistakenly) connect the word hobo to the state of being homeless, consider the origins of the word: migrant workers who relinquished the idea of establishing a home in favor of traveling vagabond-style to various work sites. In post-Civil War America, hobos were vaulted to romantic levels of heroism, shaping the rugged identity of land beyond the Mississippi and taking on odd jobs that ended up building the vast American West. During the Depression, the romantic nature of being a hobo was replaced by desperation, as unemployed men ventured west for work.

The hobo lifestyle is one that requires skill, adaptability, and both a sense of place and lack of identification with a specific home. It’s not a lifestyle everyone can follow, but it’s one that “Steam Train” Maury mastered to a T. The National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa, crowned him the “Hobo King” five times and in 2004 named him the “Grand Patriarch of the Hobos.”

Maury, whose real name was Maurice W. Graham, became the face of the hobo movement, whose disappearance from American life is as much a reflection of the changing American economy as it is of the changing nature of work. Hobos were once famous for hitching rides on freight cars that crisscrossed the country. But as those trains began to disappear, so too did the hobos.

Maury, however, was a dyed-in-the-wool hobo. He sported a beard, regaled people with stories of his travels over thousands of miles, and carried a walking stick topped off with a plume of owl feathers, according to his obituary in The New York Times.

The man who would reign supreme among hobos was born nearly a century ago in Atchison, Kansas. He had a tumultuous childhood, being handed off between family members and never staying in one place for too long—a trait that would later serve him well. He made the jump to the hobo life—literally—when he hopped onto a train at 14. 

But Maury felt the pull of domestication for a bit. He eventually learned cement masonry, opening a school for masons in Toledo, Ohio. He later served his country as a medical technician with the Army during World War II. He married his wife Wanda, had a couple kids, and became a day laborer.

The open roads kept beckoning to him, though. Maury, who by now was in his 50s, had hip problems that made physically demanding work difficult, keeping him at home for long periods of time. He started getting on Wanda’s nerves. The friction drove Maury to remember his brief stint hobo’ing across the country, and so in 1971, he took a breather and snagged a freight train, hoping a little time away would help mend his body and mind. He figured he’d be back in a few weeks. 

“What gets you hooked is the outdoors,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “A hobo is just a guy who went camping and never came home.”

He ended up being gone for 10 years. 

In 1981, Maury swung by his home in Toledo again. He’d been crowned King of the Hobos, his hip hurt, and he wanted to come home. Wanda had all but decided he wasn’t returning, but when Maury called to ask her to dinner, she couldn’t refuse. And in the end, she couldn’t refuse Maury’s charm, either, which ultimately convinced her to stay with him.

But that didn’t stop Maury from becoming the face of hobos, an unofficial spokesperson for his tribe, noting that hobos were distinctly different from the homeless, alcoholics, and the criminal. “A hobo is a man of the world, who travels to see and observe and then shares those views with others,” he once said.

Maury spent his last years living mainly off social security and becoming a regular at Toledo-area schools telling children his stories; around Christmas, his flowing white beard meant he went from hobo to ho ho ho. But his hobo roots were never too far away: Maury co-founded the Hobo Foundation, helped establish the Hobo Museum in Britt, Iowa (where an annual Hobo Festival still takes place), and attained the unique title of Life King of the Hobos East of the Mississippi. In 1990, Maury penned a book, Tales of the Iron Road: My Life as King of the Hobos.

When a hobo dies, he is said to have “taken the westbound,” and on November 18, 2006, 89-year-old Maury caught the westbound after a series of strokes and a coma. The world lost the patron saint of hobos. 

“He was a classy and respected man,” Linda Hughes, president of the Hobo Foundation, said at the time. “No one can live up to Steam Train. He’s irreplaceable.”

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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