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10 Things to Remember About Memorial Day

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Memorial Day is more than just a three-day weekend and a chance to get the year's first sunburn. Here's a handy 10-pack of facts to give the holiday some perspective.

1. It started with the Civil War

Memorial Day was a response to the unprecedented carnage of the Civil War, in which some 620,000 soldiers on both sides died. The loss of life and its effect on communities throughout the North and South led to spontaneous commemorations of the dead:

"¢ In 1864, women from Boalsburg, Pa., put flowers on the graves of their dead from the just-fought Battle of Gettysburg. The next year, a group of women decorated the graves of soldiers buried in a Vicksburg, Miss., cemetery.

"¢ In April 1866, women from Columbus, Miss., laid flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers. It was recognized at the time as an act of healing sectional wounds. In the same month, up in Carbondale, Ill., 219 Civil War veterans marched through town in memory of the fallen to Woodlawn Cemetery, where Union hero Maj. Gen. John A. Logan delivered the principal address. The ceremony gave Carbondale its claim to the first organized, community-wide Memorial Day observance.

"¢ Waterloo, N.Y., began holding an annual community service on May 5, 1866. Although many towns claimed the title, it was Waterloo that won congressional recognition as the "birthplace of Memorial Day."

2. General Logan made it official

logan.jpgGen. Logan, the speaker at the Carbondale gathering, also was commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans. On May 5, 1868, he issued General Orders No. 11, which set aside May 30, 1868, "for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion"¦."


The orders expressed hope that the observance would be "kept up from year to year while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades."

3. It was first known as Decoration Day

From the practice of decorating graves with flowers, wreaths and flags, the holiday was long known as Decoration Day. The name Memorial Day goes back to 1882, but the older name didn't disappear until after World War II. Federal law declared "Memorial Day" the official name in 1967.

4. The holiday is a franchise

Calling Memorial Day a "national holiday" is a bit of a misnomer. While there are 11 "federal holidays" created by Congress—including Memorial Day—they apply only to Federal employees and the District of Columbia. Federal Memorial Day, established in 1888, allowed Civil War veterans, many of whom were drawing a government paycheck, to honor their fallen comrades with out being docked a day's pay.

For the rest of us, our holidays were enacted state by state. New York was the first state to designate Memorial Day a legal holiday, in 1873. Most Northern states had followed suit by the 1890s. The states of the former Confederacy were unenthusiastic about a holiday memorializing those who, in Gen. Logan's words, "united to suppress the late rebellion." The South didn't adopt the May 30 Memorial Day until after World War I, by which time its purpose had been broadened to include those who died in all the country's wars.

In 1971, the Monday Holiday Law shifted Memorial Day from May 30, to the last Monday of the month.

5. It was James Garfield's finest hour—or maybe hour-and-a-half

On May 30, 1868, President Ulysses S. Grant presided over the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery—which, until 1864, was Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's plantation.

Some 5,000 people attended on a spring day which, The New York Times reported, was "somewhat too warm for comfort." The principal speaker was James A. Garfield, a Civil War general, Republican congressman from Ohio and future president.

"I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion," Garfield began, and then continued to utter them. "If silence is ever golden, it must be beside the graves of fifteen-thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem the music of which can never be sung." It went on like that for pages and pages.

As the songs, speeches and sermons ended, the participants helped to decorate the graves of the Union and Confederate soldiers buried in the cemetery.

6. God knows, not even the Unknown Soldier can avoid media scrutiny these days

unknown-soldier.jpg"Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God." That is the inscription on the Tomb of the Unknowns, established at Arlington National Cemetery to inter the remains of the first Unknown Soldier, a World War I fighter, on Nov. 11, 1921. Unknown soldiers from World War II and the Korean War subsequently were interred in the tomb on Memorial Day 1958.


An emotional President Ronald Reagan presided over the interment of six bones, the remains of an unidentified Vietnam War soldier, on Nov. 28, 1984. Fourteen years later, those remains were disinterred, no longer unknown. Spurred by an investigation by CBS News, the defense department removed the remains from the Tomb of the Unknowns for DNA testing.


The once-unknown fighter was Air Force pilot Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, whose jet crashed in South Vietnam in 1972. "The CBS investigation suggested that the military review board that had changed the designation on Lt. Blassie's remains to 'unknown' did so under pressure from veterans' groups to honor a casualty from the Vietnam War," The New York Times reported in 1998.

Lt. Blassie was reburied near his hometown of St. Louis. His crypt at Arlington remains permanently empty. [Image courtesy of VisitingDC.com.]

7. Vietnam vets go whole hog

On Memorial Day weekend in 1988, 2,500 motorcyclists rode into Washington, D.C., for the first Rolling Thunder rally to draw attention to Vietnam War soldiers still missing in action or prisoners of war. By 2002, the numbers had swelled to 300,000 bikers, many of them veterans. There may have been a half-million participants in 2005 in what organizers bluntly call "a demonstration—not a parade."

rolling-thunder.jpg

A national veterans rights group, Rolling Thunder takes its name from the B-52 carpet-bombing runs during the war in Vietnam. Rolling Thunder XXI (and you thought only Super Bowls and Rocky movies used Roman numerals) is Sunday, May 25. [Image courtesy of WhiteHouse.gov.]

8. Memorial Day has its customs

General Orders No. 11 stated that "in this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed," but over time several customs and symbols became associated with the holiday.

It is customary on Memorial Day to fly the flag at half staff until noon, and then raise it to the top of the staff until sunset.

Taps, the 24-note bugle call, is played at all military funerals and memorial services. It originated in 1862 when Union Gen. Dan Butterfield "grew tired of the "˜lights out' call sounded at the end of each day," according to The Washington Post. Together with the brigade bugler, Butterfield made some changes to the tune.

Not long after, the melody was used at a burial for the first time, when a battery commander ordered it played in lieu of the customary three rifle volleys over the grave. The battery was so close to enemy lines, the commander was worried the shots would spark renewed fighting.

The World War I poem "In Flanders Fields," by John McCrea, inspired the Memorial Day custom of wearing red artificial poppies. In 1915, a Georgia teacher and volunteer war worker named Moina Michael began a campaign to make the poppy a symbol of tribute to veterans and for "keeping the faith with all who died." The sale of poppies has supported the work of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

9. There is still a gray Memorial Day

Several Southern states continue to set aside a day for honoring the Confederate dead, which is usually called Confederate Memorial Day: Alabama: fourth Monday in April; Georgia: April 26; Louisiana: June 3; Mississippi: last Monday in April; North Carolina: May 10; South Carolina: May 10; Tennessee (Confederate Decoration Day): June 3; Texas (Confederate Heroes Day): January 19; Virginia: last Monday in May.

10. Each Memorial Day is a little different

No question that Memorial Day is a solemn event. Still, don't feel too guilty about doing something frivolous, like having barbecue, over the weekend. After all, you weren't the one who instituted the Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 1911. That credit goes to Indianapolis businessman Carl Fisher. The winning driver that day was Ray Harroun, who averaged 74.6 mph and completed the race in 6 hours and 42 minutes.

Gravitas returned on May 30, 1922, when the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated. Supreme Court chief justice (and former president) William Howard Taft dedicated the monument before a crowd of 50,000 people, segregated by race, and which included a row of Union and Confederate veterans. Also attending was Lincoln's surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln.

And in 2000, Congress established a National Moment of Remembrance, which asks Americans to pause for one minute at 3pm in an act of national unity. The time was chosen because 3pm "is the time when most Americans are enjoying their freedoms on the national holiday."

David Holzel is a freelance writer and edits the ezine The Jewish Angle.

Previously on mental_floss...

"¢ He Took a Polaroid Every Day, Until the Day He Died
"¢ The Nine Lives of Andrew Jackson
"¢ 15 Reasons Mr. Rogers Was The Best Neighbor Ever
"¢ Memories of Action Park
"¢ Quiz: The License Plate Game
"¢ Quiz: State Quarters

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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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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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