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The White House of Horrors: 4 Ghosts Haunting 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

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Wikimedia Commons

Sure, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue isn't exactly the Amityville house, but that big, drafty mansion is one of the most haunted of houses in America. Over the decades, and particularly in the early ones, the presidents and families who have called the White House home suffered the turmoils of war, illness, depression, and even death. So it's no wonder that some tortured souls might want to return for unfinished business.

After moving into the White House in 1945, Harry Truman wrote to his wife Bess about their spooky new abode: "I sit here in this old house … all the while listening to the ghosts walk up and down the hallway and even right in here in the study. The floors pop and the drapes move back and forth—I can just imagine old Andy [Jackson] and Teddy [Roosevelt] having an argument over Franklin [Roosevelt]."

Who, exactly, is wandering the White House's cavernous halls? Here, a rumored rundown of the ghosts lurking at the country's most famous address.

1. Abigail Adams


John and Abigail Adams were the first residents of the White House, which was still under construction when they moved in at the turn of the 18th century. While they didn't live there long (Adams wasn't re-elected), Abigail—or at least her ghost—made a lasting impression on the house. With most rooms still being built, the First Lady preferred to hang her wash in the East Room as it was the warmest and driest available. In later years, this room would be used for receptions, and members of the Taft administration reported seeing a ghostly Mrs. Adams, clad in a cap and lace shawl with arms outstretched as if carrying laundry, saunter through. Others noted a light soapy fragrance drift through the room.

2. Andrew Jackson

It was actually during Lincoln's presidency that the ghost of Andrew Jackson, the country's seventh president, returned to the White House. Mary Todd Lincoln said in 1865 that she actually confronted his "cantankerous" ghost in his former bedroom, the Rose Room. Argumentative and fiery in life, Jackson's ghost was just as boisterous in the hereafter. Mrs. Lincoln reportedly heard Jackson "stomping about" and even "cussing" in his old room. His hauntings persisted, and by the 1950s the Rose Room earned the reputation as the most possessed location in the White House. Visitors have reported the sound of loud laughing and unexplained cold spots in the creepy space.

3. Dolley Madison


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Dolley Madison, the wife of our country's fourth president, James Madison, had her eyes set on the White House garden from the get-go. It was Dolley who planted the original, now famous White House roses, and it is believed that her spirit continues to return to check on her beloved flowers. Nearly a century later, when First Lady Edith Wilson attempted to remove the garden, workers reported seeing a "very angry" Dolley apparition and quit the job immediately.

4. Abraham Lincoln

Honest Abe is considered the most common White House ghost, but the Lincolns' connection to the spiritual world began while they were still alive. In 1862, after losing a second son, Mary Todd Lincoln was so distraught that she turned to spiritualists in an attempt to communicate with her beloved Willie. She held seances and "sittings" in the White House, which Abe reportedly joined, despite an outward show of skepticism.

For his part, Lincoln is considered our most "otherworldly" president. In an 1842 letter to his friend Joshua Speed, Lincoln wrote, "I always did have a strong tendency to mysticism." Later, he foresaw his death in a dream. And it is that abbreviated second term that draws Lincoln back to the White House. A number of White House residents who came after reportedly saw his lanky figure or felt his presence. Calvin Coolidge's wife Grace saw him standing, looking out a window of the Oval Office across the Potomac to the former Civil War battlefields. Other First Ladies, including Eleanor Roosevelt—who used Lincoln's bedroom as her study—and Lady Bird Johnson, reportedly "felt his presence." When Winston Churchill visited the White House during World War II, the British Prime Minister reportedly came out of the bath to find a ghostly Lincoln sitting by the fireplace in his room. Later, Ronald Reagan told the story of how his grown-up daughter, Maureen, and her husband, Dennis, had both witnessed, at different times, a transparent figure wearing a stove-pipe hat standing by the window of the Lincoln bedroom where they stayed. But fear not, visitors. It's believed Lincoln's spirit is a good one and sticks around only to be of help during times of crisis.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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