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Stacy Conradt

Grave Sightings: Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr.

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Stacy Conradt

While we may have William Clark to thank for mapping the Western half of the United States, his grandson also contributed quite a bit to American culture—especially if you like horse racing.

Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. (his father was named after William's Clark’s expedition partner) was not quite 6 years old when his mother died. Afterwards, the elder Meriwether Lewis Clark sent Jr., whom they called "Lutie," to live with his aunt in Louisville, Kentucky. As one of the founding families of Kentucky, his mother’s side of the family was wealthy, and they introduced him to the world of horse breeding. In 1872, Lutie attended the Epsom Derby in England—and a light bulb went off in his head. Why couldn’t he create a horse racing event in Kentucky?

When Clark returned home the following year, his uncles, John and Henry Churchill, leased him 80 acres of land. He raised additional money for the project by selling memberships for $100 each. The steep price didn’t stop 320 people from ponying up.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Louisville Jockey Club and Driving Park officially opened in 1875, but no one called it that. Knowing where the land had come from, everyone referred to the new track as Churchill Downs. (Its name wasn’t officially changed until 1937, however.) By 1886, The New York Times was calling it "the greatest annual event of the American turf."

Sadly, Clark’s good fortune wouldn’t last. Angered by the lack of bookmakers—they had been locked out over a contract dispute—millionaire and Thoroughbred breeder James Ben Ali Haggin boycotted the Downs later in 1886 and took a bunch of his rich friends with him. While the boycott wasn't enough to close the track, it did harm its prestige—just four horses competed in the Derby in 1891, and only three in 1892.

To make matters worse, Clark lost big in the stock market crash of 1893. Upon selling the Louisville Jockey Club in 1894, he said, "I could wish nothing worse for my worst enemy than that he should become my successor and contend with all that I have contended with."

Stacy Conradt

On April 22, 1899, the 53-year-old Churchill Downs founder was found dead in a hotel room in Memphis, the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Clark's body was returned to Louisville, where he was buried at Cave Hill Cemetery next to one of the men who had helped him make his dream a reality—his uncle, John.

Peruse all the entries in our Grave Sightings series here.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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