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A Book Made From “Washington’s Tree”

George Washington had a thing for trees—legendary trees, that is. Remember when he cut his dad’s cherry tree down, then refused to tell a lie about his deed? The tale was a legend created by one of Washington’s first biographers, but the cherry tree has forevermore been associated with the first president’s honesty. However, it turns out that Washington consorted with another legendary tree, too: He supposedly took command of the Continental Army beneath an elm tree in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The elm itself wasn’t fake: It was one of six elm trees that lined Garden Street near Cambridge Commons. But the story that surrounded it almost certainly was. It went like this: Inspired by patriotism and inflamed by the anger of a crowd, Washington sat on a horse beneath an elm tree, pulled out his sword, and made himself an army.

Just about everything in the legend appears to be false, as Harvard arborist John George Jack noted in 1931 [PDF]. “To clinch the effect of [the legend] ...” he complained, “the artists have allowed their historical imaginations to run amuck. Prancing steeds, dipping colors, dear little drummer boys, long rows of troops aligned to a hair’s breadth, gorgeously uniformed, and presenting glittering arms with fixed bayonets, thrill every youthful heart, while smack in the middle of the front rank stands the Elm, with just room for Washington, flourishing his sword, to ride between it and the immaculate warriors.”

Washington did take command of his troops in Cambridge, but the event is thought to have been anything but glamorous. His men didn’t have uniforms or enough to eat. It wasn’t even a real army: It was a random assortment of state militias with no authority of any kind. Once he took control, Washington found that his troops were dirty and unruly and had really bad manners. For the future president, assuming control of the motley mob was taking an almost laughable gamble—one that he famously won.

The legend of what became known as “the Washington Elm” may have taken root because of other famous Revolutionary War-era trees. Boston’s Liberty Tree was an elm tree where people hung their favorite effigies and met to conspire against King George. Eventually, places all over the new nation planted their own “liberty trees,” and elms became known for their Revolutionary War connotations.

By the time the 100th anniversary of Washington’s army takeover came around, the tree where he supposedly did the deed was in terrible shape. “It is not pleasant to view the decay of one of these Titans of primeval growth,” wrote one observer, who noted that its branches had been mutilated and fallen until only a bandage-swathed monster remained.

Perhaps guessing that the end was near, a group of savvy businesspeople took some of the detritus of the dying tree and had it carved into commemorative books, like the one you see above. Housed in the collection of Harvard University’s Houghton Library, the book shows scenes of the tree itself and glimpses of Revolutionary War-era soldiers doing their thing.

In 1923, the last mangy portions of the rotted Washington Elm fell down. The government of Cambridge had to rescue what remained from souvenir hunters eager to get their hands on a piece of the tree. But its legacy didn’t end there: Not only were the remnants made into gavels and sent all around the country, but other portions of the rotten wood were divvied up and sent to various notable people and everyday applicants. The tree even got its own postage stamp in 1925.

Today, descendants of the tree can be found throughout the country. But don’t confuse them with other so-called Washington Elms the president supposedly planted or chilled out under in Washington, D.C. They’re probably legends, too—although the memorabilia generated by the first president’s association with elms shows that Washington fans were anything but fake.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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iStock

Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]

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