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4 Early American Politicians Rocked by Sex Scandals

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General David Petraeus resigned his position and ended any hope of a run for the presidency over a sex scandal. While his actions weren't appropriate, he was just carrying on a long tradition of powerful men in government ruining their careers for a roll in the hay.

1. Alexander Hamilton

It took less than two years into George Washington’s first term as president for a member of his administration to get embroiled in the brand-new country’s first major political sex scandal. While serving as the Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton began an affair with the already married Maria Reynolds. When her husband found out, he decided not to challenge Hamilton to a duel, as was standard in those days, but asked for hush money instead. Hamilton paid.

After a few years, some political insiders found out about the affair, but at first no one leaked it to the press; that is until Thomas Jefferson wanted to make sure his nemesis Hamilton didn't run for president. Jefferson got his hands on some love letters and passed them to a reporter who printed them in full in the paper, and Hamilton was forced to admit his indiscretion. Maria Reynolds divorced her husband and Hamilton’s political career was effectively over. But while Hamilton had avoided one duel, another would end his life a few years later, coincidentally with the same man who had handled Reynolds’ divorce: Aaron Burr.

2. Richard Johnson

You wouldn’t think having sex with your wife could cause a scandal, but if it was the 1820s, you were white, and that wife was black, it was shocking enough to hurt your career. Johnson, a Senator and the ninth vice president of the United States, openly kept one of his slaves as his common law wife and even publicly acknowledged his two children with her. While his constituency wasn't bothered by this at first, as word of his situation spread, his career took a hit—and he lost his seat in the Senate.

Johnson pointed out that he was far from the only politician to have a relationship with a slave, and he defended his honor as being better than others who were secretive about their affairs, saying, "Unlike Jefferson, Clay, Poindexter, and others, I married my wife under the eyes of God, and apparently He has found no objections.” Despite his love for his wife, Johnson never freed her and she was his slave until she died.

3. John Eaton

Peggy O’Neale was just 17 when she married 39-year-old Navy purser John Timberlake. While John was away at sea for months at a time, Peggy would host prominent politicians in her Washington home. Then John died on one of his voyages and Peggy found herself a young widow with two children to support. Thankfully, Senator John Eaton, an old friend, was there to help her pick up the pieces. The two married almost immediately after her husband’s death.

While today getting remarried so quickly might raise a few eyebrows, in the 1800s this was just not done. There were strict rules on mourning, and waiting less than a year before getting hitched again indicated a ferocious sex drive or the existence of a previous affair. The O’Neale-Eaton marriage scandalized the women of Washington, who made sure their husbands knew just how to feel on the matter. In 1829, President Jackson tried to show support for the couple by making Eaton his Secretary of War. But by 1831 the scandal had engulfed Jackson's administration, and all but one member of his cabinet resigned. All because Eaton married a pretty young widow too quickly.

4. James Henry Hammond

Over the course of a quarter century, from 1835 to 1860, James Hammond was a member of the House, a Senator, and Governor of South Carolina. However, he only spent a total of six of those 25 years holding office, due mostly to his questionable sex life. In college, Hammond had a gay affair with a friend (which is documented in a series of explicit letters kept at the South Caroliniana Library), and rumors of this followed him his whole life. When he got older, he had relationships with four of his own nieces; in his diaries, he blamed the girls for coming on to him. When these relationships came to light, Hammond had to leave the national scene for 13 years before his reputation recovered enough to allow him to get reelected; the girls had their reputations tarnished forever, and never married.

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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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Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]