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Chester Alan Arthur: The Underrated President With Three First Names

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On this date in 1881, Chester A. Arthur was sworn in as President of the United States. Our friend Thomas Sonnenschein is here to honor the underappreciated, overnamed twenty-first president.

Many years ago, in a college trivia tournament, a moderator asked a question: Who is the least-known American president?

The question itself invited more questions. Least known by whom? American historians? The general public? Nepalese monarchs?

And, of course, if the least-known president is well known enough to be the answer of a trivia question, how little known could he be?

It was a conundrum.

The answer the questioner was looking for was Millard Fillmore. But Fillmore, even then, was better known than probably a half-dozen U.S. presidents. The great journalist H.L. Mencken had seized on Fillmore's semi-anonymous mediocrity to give him credit for having installed the first White House bathtub "“ a canard that, more than 80 years after Mencken invented it, is still considered the highlight of the Fillmore administration.

But if any president should have the title "least known," it should be Chester Alan Arthur (pictured), the 21st president, as an extremely informal 2007 Mother Jones survey observed. Whether this survey is accurate or not "“ on a different day with a different polling pool, the conclusion could have favored Zachary Taylor, Benjamin Harrison or even the beloved Franklin Pierce, described by a recent biographer as (yes) "the nation's least-known president" "“ the results make more sense. For Chester Alan Arthur, a man with some stunning muttonchop whiskers, may truly be the most anonymous man ever to hold the United States' highest office.

Consider his unlikely career.

Most presidents rise to the office through military fame (Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight Eisenhower), Cabinet distinction (John Quincy Adams, Herbert Hoover) or previous election to high office (most everyone else). Prior to his election as vice-president, Arthur was "¦ the former Collector of the Port of New York.

Indeed, at the time he was nominated, he had returned to practicing law, as he'd been forced out of the Collector's position by President Rutherford B. Hayes in an attempt at reform. (In Arthur's defense, he apparently ran the Customs House more honorably than his often corrupt predecessors.)

He was selected as the vice-presidential nominee during a particularly bitter Republican convention. The party was divided between three groups: the Stalwarts, the Half-Breeds and the Reformers. The Stalwarts were in favor of the post-Civil War Republican hard line and led by Roscoe Conkling, the New York senator and Republican kingmaker with the unbelievably perfect politician's name. The Half-Breeds were the less-radical followers of presidential candidate and senator James G. "The Plumed Knight," "The Man from Maine" Blaine. The Reformers were in favor of ending the spoils system then in force "“ a system favored by the Stalwarts and the Half-Breeds.

Oh, and Conkling and Blaine didn't like each other.

The convention went to 36 ballots before finally picking James A. Garfield "“ who started the convention as the campaign manager for another candidate -- as its presidential standard-bearer.

After Garfield's selection, party regulars offered the vice-presidential nomination to Arthur, largely because he was Conkling's right-hand man. Conkling actually urged Arthur to decline the nomination "as you would a red-hot shoe from the forge," since he thought Garfield was a sure loser, but Arthur was adamant: "This is a higher honor than I have ever dreamt of attaining. I shall accept!"

So, who was this mysterious man with the three first names?

Chester Alan Arthur was born in Fairfield, Vermont, on October 5, 1829, the son of a preacher man. (Sources are not entirely clear on his birth; he may have been born in 1830, and he may have been born in Canada, but that's a discussion for another time.) He grew up in Perry, New York, and graduated from that Schenectady's Union College in 1848. After a few years as a school principal, he earned his law degree and moved to New York City. Among his cases was a lawsuit that ended desegregation of public transit in New York.

During the Civil War, he was quartermaster of the State of New York, and after another stint practicing law, President Grant "“ who Arthur had supported strongly in 1868 -- appointed him Collector in 1871, a position Arthur held for seven years.

Despite Arthur's bona fides, he was viewed as Conkling's man. Garfield didn't think much of his running mate. (Apparently, neither did the news media of the time; The New York Times said Arthur was "about the last man who would be considered eligible" for the presidency.)

However, Arthur "“ or, more precisely, Conkling "“ may have made a difference in November, as Garfield won the presidency by less than 10,000 votes in the popular count, and 214 to 155 in the Electoral College. Had New York gone Democratic "“ it favored Garfield by just 20,000 votes -- we'd be talking about the administration of Winfield Scott Hancock.

Garfield was inaugurated on March 4, 1881. He spent his first months in office trying to find a middle ground between the Republican forces that had helped put him there. (Among his moves: naming Blaine Secretary of State.)

And then, tragedy. Or, if your name was Chester Alan Arthur, opportunity.

Garfield's first months in office turned out to be his only months in office. On July 2, 1881, only four months after beginning his term, he was shot by the most famous disgruntled office-seeker in American history, Charles J. Guiteau. Garfield died 10 weeks later, and Arthur was sworn in as president on September 20, 1881. He was 51 years old. Legend has it that a Republican friend, upon hearing the news, said, "Chet Arthur? President of the United States? Good God!"


[Image courtesy of Slags House of Stats.]

No doubt, Conkling thought he'd now control the presidency. Moreover, Conkling's opponents, the Half-Breeds, probably thought the same thing. Instead, Arthur managed to rise above both factions, firing Garfield's entire cabinet, including Blaine (only secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln kept his job) and coming out in favor of ending the spoils system, which he'd previously supported. In 1883, Congress passed the Pendleton Act, which established the bipartisan Civil Service Commission.

Arthur was also key in helping to establish the modern American navy.

He did have his faults, however. A dandy "“ he was known as both "the Gentleman Boss" and "Elegant Arthur," which was saying something in Gilded Age America "“ he asked Louis Tiffany to redecorate the White House in the style to which he was accustomed, which resulted in previous generations of White House furniture being sold or destroyed. (Arthur, a widower who had lost his wife in 1880, requested Tiffany's work himself; it cost $30,000, quite a sum in 1881.) He also signed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, an anti-immigrant law that wasn't repealed until World War II.

In general, however, Arthur was thought of highly. Even the cynical Mark Twain observed, "It would be hard indeed to better President Arthur's administration." (He wasn't joking.)

But the Republicans remained mistrustful, and though Arthur didn't campaign actively for the 1884 nomination "“ he was suffering from Bright's Disease, a kidney ailment that would kill him two years later "“ the party nominated his old rival Blaine instead. To this day, Arthur is the last sitting president pursuing re-election to be denied his party's nomination.

Nevertheless, his place in American history is secure. Perhaps the next time someone asks the name of the least-known president in American history, the answer won't be Chester Alan Arthur. He'll have earned far too much distinction for that. One could do worse than the president with three first names.

Thomas Sonnenschein is an occasional contributor to mental_floss. Come back Monday for an extra special Chester A. Quiz.


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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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.