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The Quick 10: The Pre-Politics Careers of 10 Second Ladies

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As the election approaches, we're learning more than we ever wanted to know about the Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates. You even hear a lot about the potential First Ladies "“ I have somehow picked up the fact that Barack and Michelle Obama saw Do the Right Thing on their first date. But you don't hear too much about the Second Ladies "“ or, in this case, the Second Spouses. Todd Palin, for example, holds down a few jobs "“ he works for BP and is also a salmon fisherman. His wife refers to him as the "First Dude" of Alaska.

Jill Biden taught English and history for 13 years at a public high school and later became a professor of English at Delaware Technical and Community College. She still holds the same job, but now has her doctorate and is the president of the Biden Breast Health Initiative.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that today's Q10 is about what the Second Ladies did with their lives before they were Second Ladies. Some of them will surprise you"¦ some of them won't. Thanks to Meg McGinn for the research!

lynne1. Lynne Cheney. Among other things, she was the co-host of CNN's Crossfire from 1995 to 1998. She was also on the Lockheed board of directors

2. Tipper Gore was a freelance photographer and was working toward her master's degree in Psychology. She ultimately gave both up, saying it was hard to get a job in the news industry with her husband serving in the Senate.

3. Marilyn Quayle was part owner of a law practice. The other owner? Her husband. Quayle & Quayle operated in Huntington, Indiana.

4. Joan Mondale acquired the nickname "Joan of Art" pretty honestly.

mondaleAfter she graduated from college, for worked as the Assistant Slide Librarian at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and then an Assistant in Education at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (translation: she gave tours and lectures). While her husband served as V.P., she was the Honorary Chairperson of the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities and wrote a book called Politics in Art.

5. Margaretta "Happy" Rockefeller. You'd be happy too, if you were a Rockefeller. OK, bad joke, and probably not true. Anyway, she earned her "Happy" nickname as a child, before she was a Rockefeller. But she was already wealthy in her own right "“ she was heiress to a cordage fortune. But she worked for Nelson Rockefeller anyway, and eventually left her husband for him. He divorced his wife of 32 years and married Happy almost immediately. There is speculation that this scandal probably cost him the Presidential nomination.

ford6. Betty Ford probably had the most glamorous pre-political career: she was a model and a dancer with the Martha Graham company. But when a permanent career didn't pan out in either of those fields, she returned home to Michigan and worked as a fashion coordinator at a local department store. She also continued dance, but this time in the form of teaching. After she married her first husband, she earned money by working as a product demonstrator at another department store.

7. Muriel Humphrey is actually responsible for her husband's success "“ she worked as a bookkeeper at a utility company to put Hubert through college in the 1930s. When he died, she took over his vacancy in the Senate.

8. Lady Bird Johnson financed LBJ's campaigns, managed his Congressional office while he was in the Navy, and bought a small radio station in Austin, Texas, with some money from her inheritance. Business was booming, and about 19 years later, her investment was worth more than $6 million (at least $40 million by today's standards).

9. I have to mention Ilo Brown Wallace, the 33rd Second Lady of the U.S., because she was from Iowa "“ Indianola, to be exact. Before she was living large in Washington, she was the co-founder of Hi-Bred Corn Company in 1926. She and her husband used money she had inherited from her parents to start it. It's now Pioneer Hi-Bred International, the world's second-largest seed company.

nixon10. Contrary to Lady Bird and Ilo Brown, Pat Nixon definitely did not receive an inheritance from her parents. Her mom died when she was 12 and her dad died when she was 17. When she was 18, she headed across thr country to New York and worked as a secretary and an X-Ray tech; she earned enough money to get back to California and go to school. To pay for her merchandising major at the University of Southern California, she had some walk-on parts in movies (including "dancing pirate", "small town girl" and "Ziegfeld girl"). After graduation in 1937, she ended up teaching shorthand and typing in Whittier, California, for $190 a month.

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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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Library of Congress
10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.


One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.


WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.


Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.


Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”


The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.


Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.


Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.


The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.


Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.