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Washington Didn't Sleep Here: A White House FAQ

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It was 216 years ago today that George Washington laid the cornerstone of the White House. Of course, poor George is the only president who didn't live in it; he left office before the house was finished. A lot has happened in the house since then, both good and bad. But let's put that aside and focus on the building itself.

How big is it?
The White House, at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW in Washington, D.C., has 132 rooms (including 35 bathrooms), 412 doors, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, 8 staircases, and 3 elevators spread out over six floors, which have a combined area of 55,000 square feet. The house is 170 feet wide, not including the porticos, and 70 feet tall at its highest point. It takes 570 gallons of paint to cover the outside surface. It is owned by the National Park Service.

How was it built, and what major changes have been made?

In 1791, George Washington and Pierre L'Enfant, the civil engineer who planned the District of Columbia, chose a site for the president's mansion and a competition was held to find the right design. There were nine submissions—one of which was from Thomas Jefferson, using a pseudonym. The design by Irish-born architect James Hoban was chosen by Washington, with two suggestions: the house would be enlarged by thirty percent and include a large reception hall. Construction began on October 13, 1792, when Washington laid the cornerstone, and the house was finished eight years later at a total cost of $232,372.


James Hoban's White House design.

Thomas Jefferson began the expansion of the original house when he moved in. Working with architect Benjamin Latrobe, he added colonnades on the east and west sides of the house to conceal a stable and storage areas.

During the War of 1812, the White House was burned by British troops. Only the exterior walls survived the fire, and even these had to be torn down and reconstructed because of fire damage and exposure to the elements. Latrobe and Hoban both contributed to the reconstruction and added the north and south porticos.

When Theodore Roosevelt moved in with his wife and six children, the White House got a little too crowded to be used as both a residence and an office, so Roosevelt had the mansion renovated and added the East and West wings. The East Wing was used as a guest entrance and the West Wing provided office space for the president and his staff.

The West Wing was damaged by a fire in 1929, but was rebuilt and expanded by a second floor and a basement. Roosevelt's original East Wing was replaced by a bigger structure in 1942 to balance the larger West Wing and to hide the construction of an underground emergency bunker. Today, it houses the offices of the First Lady and her staff, as well as the visitor entrance and lobby.

In 1948, Harry Truman began a large reconstruction project that involved the complete dismantling of the interior space of the house, the construction of a load-bearing concrete and steel frame within the shell of the exterior walls, and the rebuilding of the original interior space.

The last major change made to the White House was the redecoration carried out by Jacqueline Kennedy, who brought in a number of antiques, paintings and historical artifacts. Mrs. Kennedy chose different periods of world history as themes for various rooms in the house and funded the redecoration with sales of the first White House guide book.

Some improvements made to the White House over the course of its history include:

Wheelchair accessibility modifications made during Franklin Roosevelt's presidency.

A wheelchair ramp in the East Wing, to provide access for visitors, was approved by Hillary Clinton.

A telephone, added during Rutherford B. Hayes presidency, was rarely used because there were so few telephones in Washington (for a while, the White House telephone number was "1.")

"¢ Benjamin Harrison was the first president to enjoy electricity in the house.

A telegraph was installed by Andrew Johnson in the room next to his office.

"¢ Warren G. Harding had a radio in his study.

"¢ Jimmy Carter took a baby step toward going green when he installed solar heating panels on the roof of the West Wing, which were later removed.

"¢ George Bush sent the first presidential email in 1992.

Why is the White House white?

Legend would have us believe that the house was painted white to mask the damage from the fire in 1814, but it had been white since it was built. The exterior of the building was constructed with Aquia sandstone, and was covered with a lime-based whitewash near its completion to keep the porous stone from freezing.

It wasn't known as the White House from the start, though. For close to a century, the building was referred to as the "President's Palace," the "Presidential Mansion," the "President's House" and, in official contexts, the "Executive Mansion." Teddy Roosevelt had his name for the building, the White House, engraved on the presidential stationery in 1901, and this stuck as the official name.

Why is the Oval Office oval?

The Oval Office during the Reagan years.

The West Wing featured a "temporary" Executive office when Teddy Roosevelt had it added to the building. When Taft took office, he held a competition to find an architect make an enlarged, permanent office for the president to work in. Nathan C. Wyeth, an architect from Washington, D.C., won with a design modeled after the house's original oval-shaped Blue Room.

And why was the Blue Room shaped like an oval? That room's design was inspired by the oval form of a room in George Washington's temporary presidential house in Philadelphia, which Washington had ordered rebuilt in a semi-circular form to better suit a formal reception, a concept borrowed from the English court.

What have the White House's occupants thought of the place?
"¢ Gerald Ford once said the White House was "the best public housing I've ever seen."

"¢ Harry Truman referred to the house, at various times, as a "glamorous prison," and "great white sepulcher of ambitions."

"¢ Ronald Reagan thought of it as an "eight-star hotel," according to his wife.

Who was the White House's strangest guest?
Roger Clinton and Billy Carter put together probably couldn't top the weirdness of Winston Churchill's 1941 visit to the White House. Churchill stayed for 24 days, wore a one-piece jumpsuit most of the time and was often found lounging in the nude by servants who went to his room to serve him brandy.

If you've got a burning question that you'd like to see answered here, shoot me an email at flossymatt (at) Twitter users can also make nice with me and ask me questions there. Be sure to give me your name and location (and a link, if you want) so I can give you a little shout out.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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]