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Library of Congress

Richard Nixon: The Shy Guy

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Library of Congress

Who knew Tricky Dick was such a wallflower? Believe it or not (and we realize trust might be an issue here), Richard Nixon was a shy child—the kind who played the piano and only followed sports so that people would like him more. Sadly, the awkwardness didn't go away with age. Never a ladies' man, Nixon proposed to his wife, Pat, on their first date, and then obsessively pursued her for two years until she said yes. To spend time with her in the interim, Nixon even drove Pat on dates with other men.

Perhaps all Nixon wanted was a little attention—and in 1948, he finally got it. As a young Congressman, he spearheaded the investigation that exposed former State Department official Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy. The act quickly made Nixon the sweetheart of anti-Communist America. Later, he tried a similar tactic when he ran for Senate in 1950. During the race, he accused his opponent, Helen Gahagan Douglas, of being a Commie, calling her "pink right down to her underwear." His supporters mailed out thousands of postcards reading, "Vote for our Helen for Senator. We are with you 100%." It was signed "The Communist League of Negro Women Voters." It was neither the first time nor the last time Nixon (or his cronies) would use dirty tricks to advance his career.

Even after making it all the way to the White House, Nixon remained the socially awkward wallflower he'd been in his youth. As president, he did whatever he could to avoid talking to people, especially strangers. He spent hours alone in his office with a yellow legal pad, jotting down lists of enemies and thinking up ways to comport himself better in public. He usually ate lunch by himself at his desk, almost always nibbling on the same meal of rye crackers, skim milk, a canned Dole pineapple ring, and a scoop of cottage cheese.

As part of his insular world, Nixon's phone had direct connections to only three people—Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, and Domestic Policy Advisor John Ehrlichman. (Lyndon Johnson's phone, by contrast, had been wired to 60 people.) The three men formed a protective shield around Nixon, carefully guarding him from face-time with others, including other members of the Cabinet. Collectively, the trio became known as The Berlin Wall.

Is it any surprise, then, that this shrinking violet began to seethe with paranoia? Nixon wanted every room bugged and every conversation recorded. Of course, he never anticipated those recordings being used against him. Practically every moment of Nixon's presidency was caught on tape—tapes that are filled with off-color remarks about Jews, African Americans, and Italians. Of reporters, he once said, "I wouldn't give them the sweat off my balls."

Throughout his career, Nixon employed spies (called "plumbers" because they fixed leaks) to dig up dirt on his political rivals. And if they couldn't find anything through wiretapping or burglary, they often planted evidence. But in June 1972, five of Nixon's plumbers were arrested after breaking into Democratic Party offices in the Watergate Hotel. Nixon used everything in his power to cover up the connection to the White House, but of course, it was all recorded. When the Supreme Court finally subpoenaed the tapes, Nixon was busted. Feeling pretty stupid, he resigned—and the nation hasn't trusted politicians the same way since.

Watergate will always define Richard Nixon's administration. But to be fair, he also accomplished a great deal that benefited the country. Here's a glimpse of the sunnier side of Nixon's presidency.

Special Ops

Nixon wasn't the only president to tape all of his conversations, but he was the only president to do so using a recording device that never stopped. Notoriously bad with electronics, Tricky Dick had trouble remembering how to turn on the tape recorder, so his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, installed a voice-activated system in the Oval Office. It made the president's day-to-day life easier, but it also had one problem: It could never be turned off. Oops!

A Sweet-and-Sour Diplomat

In 1972, a trip to Communist China was a big deal, as America had no formal diplomatic relations with the country. So when Nixon decided to visit Chairman Mao Zedong that February, it shocked the world. But the trip almost ended before it began, when a member of Nixon's advance team—drinking vodka and smoking pot—nearly burned down the hotel where the president was supposed to stay. Nixon was determined, though. It was an election year, and of the 391 people who made up his Chinese entourage, 90 were from the media. Night after night, Americans watched on prime-time television as Nixon and Mao got along famously, and the Cold War began to thaw.

A Patron of the Arts

nixon-elvis.jpgNixon abhorred modern art, and even forbade its presence in the White House. But you'd never know it, because his advisors told him that publicly supporting the arts would boost his image. As a result, Nixon oversaw a six-fold increase in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). To Nixon's horror, however, some of that money went to Erica Jong's novel of sexual liberation, Fear of Flying. He also cringed at PBS' liberal programming and tried to slash its budget in 1972. But because the cuts might have hurt Sesame Street instead of left-wing commentators, the matter was dropped. Not even Nixon could stomach being known as the man who murdered Big Bird.

Champion of Mother Earth

OK, so Nixon didn't really care about the environment. But after the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, public outcry over the destruction of the environment became too great to ignore. How great? The first Earth Day took place on April 22, 1970, and millions of Americans participated. In New York, no cars ran down Fifth Avenue. And in Washington, folksingers Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs sang at the Washington Monument. It was the largest single protest in American history, and Nixon paid attention. During his years in office, he signed the Endangered Species Act, strengthened the Clean Air Act, and created the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Mary Poppins of Smack

Sometimes a spoonful of methadone helps the crime rate go down. In 1968, Nixon campaigned to fight crime by any means necessary. So the following year, after a study found that 44 percent of people entering Washington, D.C., jails were using heroin, Nixon agreed to fund methadone clinics across the city. Within one year, the burglary rate dropped by 41 percent. This should have been a major win for the president, but critics argued that the clinics only substituted one drug for another. The policy never caught on, and to this day, Nixon is still the only president in the war on drugs to have spent more money on treatment than enforcement.

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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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