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Guest Blog-star: Meet Michael Stusser, Take 2

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Good day! Michael Stusser, here, with another This Day in Blogstery!

Washington_Monument.jpgOn October 9, 1888, the Washington Monument opened to the public. It seems appropriate, then, that we'd give you a little bit of our Dead Guy Interview with the fabulous George Washington. First, though, a little background on the monument itself.

The Continental Congress started chatting about a monument to honor Georgie Boy in 1783 while the POTUS was alive and well and might enjoy the view himself. By 1847, they'd collected $87,000 for the project (mostly in pennies), and picked Robert Mills to draw something up. The architect's design was truly beautiful "“ a lot better, in fact, than the giant tower we've got now. It had a decorated obelisk that rose 600 feet, surrounded by a gorgeous circular structure full of columns that would house busts of all the Presidents and national heroes.

A cornerstone for a much less elaborate monument was laid on July 4, 1848, and things progressed nicely until they ran into political opposition "“ and out of dough - in 1854. This was Washington D.C., remember. Nothing goes according to plan. Oh, and the Civil War kinda slowed things down, too.

President Grant got things moving again in 1876, and the monument was dedicated in 1885, and finally opened to we citizens on October 9, 1888. It cost $1,187,710 to build "“ chump change, really, when you think about all the golden toilets we're paying for these days"¦. You can take the stairs (50 landings and 897 steps) to the top, or the elevator which makes the trip in 70 seconds. Me? I'll do my walking at the top (555 feet above ground). Sweet view!

And with that, I give you "“ a condensed "“ conversation with President Washington from The Dead Guy Interviews. For the full, in-depth interview with Mr. Washington, you'll have to buy my book - but it'll be worth it: I cannot tell a lie!

Click below to read Michael's terrific interview with the very dead George Washington.

George Washington (February 22, 1732-December 14, 1799)

51hxFy7FRnL._SS500_1.jpgGeorge is our first and most famous President, as well as our toothless poster-boy, adorning the one-dollar bill, Mt. Rushmore, postage stamps, the quarter, a State, and about 1,000 biographies. He's also America's first true hero.

Young Georgie was raised in Virginia, and, strangely enough, wanted nothing more than to be an officer in the British army when he grew up. (He liked their crisp red suits and tight formations, and fought with the British in the French and Indian War "“ 1754-58.) Instead, his experience and reputation as a level-headed soldier made him the perfect choice to lead the Colonial army, and, thus, General George wound up fighting against the Brits in the Revolutionary War. Over eight long years, Washington led a rag-tag crew to victory and independence. (GW actually lost more battles than he won, but was a helluva inspiration to his men and "“ most importantly - victorious in the end.)

Though a fierce commander on the battlefield, he really was "gentle George" off it "“ showing a more sensitive side once the war was over, even pardoning some opponents with whom he had direct clashes.

Washington's early work surveying land in Virginia gave him what he later needed as President - common sense, resourcefulness, a firm handshake, and the understanding that he didn't know everything; surrounding himself with great minds (Jefferson, Adams, et al.), he was our nation's first team-builder.

On April 30, 1789, G-Dub was unanimously elected by Congress as our first commander-in-chief. Being first is never easy, and George had to figure out everything from how taxes would be collected to where the capital should be located (Washington D.C. of course). As it turned out, he could have stayed for as many terms as he could handle, but bowed out after 8 great years.

He retired in 1797 to Mt. Vernon where he walked daily with wife Martha, tended to his 8000 acres, and passed away after some lousy medical treatments for a cold on December 14, 1799.

THE INTERVIEW

MS: Gotta ask about the whole cherry-tree episode.GW: Never happened.

MS: What?! So you lied about cutting down your father's cherry tree! You can tell a lie!

GW: No, you see, the story you're referring to was written after I was gone.

MS: How do I know you're not lying about this?

GW: Listen, Mason Locke Weems made the story up in a biography about me the year after I died. (The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington.) But let's not be too hard on him, here "“ Mr. Weems was simply spinning a little yarn to give the youngsters some moral guidance. No harm done.

MS: At least you didn't lie about it. Now, tell us about the ol' wooden dentures.

GW: They weren't actually wooden.

MS: Oh boy.

GW: I had a bunch of sets made to fit around the only tooth left in my head, see? One was fashioned out of iron, we tried cow teeth, another from hippo tusks "“

MS: Whoa!

GW: Yeah, they smelled to high heaven though, so I moved on to a set made from human teeth.

MS: How'd Martha like those?

GW: She was happy I didn't gum her to death.

MS: Martha was loaded. Bet marrying the colonies' wealthiest widow had its advantages, huh?

GW: Young man, if you're implying"¦

MS: Well she wasn't exactly a beauty.

GW: At ease, soldier! I loved Martha. She was a good housewife, we were married for forty wonderful years, and I will not hear of this!

MS: As a kid, you wanted to join the British Army. By the time you were in the Virginia legislature you were their toughest critic. What happened?

GW: Tell you the truth "“

MS: You cannot tell a lie!

GW: I applied for a commission in the British army in "˜54 "“ and got rejected. Then I started paying attention to what the Brits were doing in the 1760's "“ taking away our rights and taxing everything from tools to playing cards.

MS: At what point did you realize you'd have to fight them?

GW: I think it was 1768 or thereabout when I told George Mason I'd take my musket on my shoulder whenever my country called.
Once the parliament passed the Tea Act (1773) and our boys dressed like Indians and dumped tea into Boston Harbor, I knew it was going to get ugly.

MS: Still, you didn't support colonial independence till 1776.

GW: That's correct. Took Thomas Paine's Common Sense to knock some sense into me.

MS: The British forces were better trained, better funded, better organized. What was your strategy for beating "˜em?

GW: Stall tactics, really. We felt like the longer the war went, the sicker the Brits would be of the whole bloody mess.

MS: Anything else?

GW: Well, we took a page from the Indian's handbook and fought them from behind rocks and trees "“ stayed out of the cities whenever we could so the redcoats couldn't thump us too bad. I also paid our troops with my own money. Kept them from mass desertions and mutiny.

MS: One of the lasting images of you is a painting of your Christmas crossing of the Delaware.

GW: Never saw it. Was dead fifty years on.

MS: Oh. Right. Well, here's a copy.

Washington is shown a copy of artist Emanuel Leutze's painting, "Washington Crossing the Delaware" (1851)

GW: Goodness. That boat looks like a sardine can.

MS: So, it wasn't exactly like that?

GW: What am I doing standing up in this painting? Makes me look like an idiot. And, though I love the sentiment, we weren't flying a flag - we were on an undercover mission "“ in the pitch dark! In fact "“ let me see that again "“ that looks like James Monroe holding the flag "“ he wasn't even in my boat. And is that a woman rowing at the stern? Pretty sure all aboard were male soldiers.

MS: Most people think of you as a great soldier, but you bungled plenty of missions.

GW: And I thank you for pointing that out, son. You ever served?

MS: No sir.

GW: OK then. It's damn hard, let me tell you. Remember, we were greatly outnumbered, and our gents didn't want to fight if they didn't have to. My job was to keep the crew together, then pick and choose the right battles. And lest you forget, we won the thing.

MS: The US and Great Britain signed a peace treaty in 1783 that recognized American Independence, and you "retired."

GW: Yep, that was the idea "“ head back to Mt. Vernon, do a little fox hunting, put my feet up.

MS: Good plan. What happened?

GW: The States started going in different directions, see, and the Articles (of Confederation) didn't seem like they'd keep everybody together. So James (Madison) and Alexander (Hamilton) decided to put together a meeting in Philly to tweak "˜em a bit.

MS: You're talking about the Constitutional Convention (1787).

GW: What? Yeah. So the delegates there picked me to chair the little pow-wow and we wrote up the document.

MS: The Constitution of the United States.

GW: Huh? Oh, yeah. Long story short, I was going to retire "“ once more "“ but the darn delegates picked me again.

MS: The Electoral College. For President.

GW: Huh? Yeah, right, and so I did that for a while"¦.then I, uh, retired again.

MS: No offense, sir, but you seem disinterested in our little chat.

GW: Huh? Oh, you still talking?

MS: Yes, sir, I was saying you seem a bit bored with our interview.

GW: Oh, no. No, see, I'm a bit hard of hearing. Blasted influenza hit me during my second term, plus my vision was shot to hell. I'm sorry. I'll pay more attention. Where were we?

MS: If you wanted to retire, you could have gone home after your first term.

GW: Yeah, guess that's true, it's just that in 1792 we were still a real young country. It was dicey "“ hit n' miss if we'd pull the experiment off.

MS: Democracy.

GW: Mmm hmm. The other reason I may have stayed was that they didn't run anybody against me, see, so I didn't have to campaign. I was OK with the business, though I preferred agriculture, to be honest.

MS: You can not tell a lie!

GW: Yeah. We get it.

MS: The phrase, "Washington Slept Here." How'd that come to pass?

GW: I felt like, as the first President, I should go to as many inns and houses as possible. Meet n' greet, press the flesh. I hauled all up and down the union, north and south, and people just started using that phrase, I guess.

MS: So it wasn't because of your rumored promiscuity?

GW: No.

MS: Remember, you can not tell a "“

GW: I said no!

MS: You owned slaves. That's not so PC these days.

GW: Guilty as charged on that account, and I'm not proud. I will say that I had good intentions. In 1786 I wrote that I hoped we could adopt some plan, by which slavery would be abolished by slow, sure and imperceptible degrees.

MS: Yeah, like that was gonna happen. What changed your mind on the issue?

GW: After commanding multi-racial troops in the Revolutionary War, I got to know the men, and realized slavery was a massive American anomaly. I also felt bad breaking up families when I purchased slaves in a lottery. You know, I did free half my slaves in my will. (Though George ordered his slaves freed upon Martha's death, she freed them all in 1800.)

MS: I'm sure the other half were thrilled. How would you describe your leadership style?

GW: Surround yourself with people smarter than you. It was my idea to create the presidential cabinet "“ more heads in the room. I had Tommy Jefferson as my Secretary of State and Alexander Hamilton running the treasury "“ pretty good crew.

MS: Wish those guys were running the show now, actually. You had an early warning about political parties.

GW: Factions, I called "˜em. Point was that we needed as much cooperation as we could get just to survive. Too many selfish parties divide the country along partisan lines and that's just no good. But I'm sure democracy has solved those problems in the last two-hundred plus years.

MS: You have no idea, sir. Have you seen the Washington Monument?

GW: Yes, it's"¦well"¦.

MS: Phallic! Five hundred and fifty five feet of manliness!

GW: That's a bit much. I'm humbled.

MS: Well then you gotta see Mt. Rushmore, sir. Your head is 60 feet tall. Then go visit Washington State, and after that "“

GW: You know, son, I think I'll pass for the time being.

MS: Bet you didn't know that we all get to take your birthday off from work!

GW: Speaking of time off, young man, I'd like to spend some time in Mt. Vernon with Martha. Maybe take a nap.

MS: Oh, one of my favorite quotes from you is, "Far better to be alone, than to be in bad company!" So profound, sir!

GW: No lie. So if you'll excuse me"¦.

END of INTERVIEW.

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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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