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Notable Bathtubs in History

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Ah, the pleasure of soaking in a warm bathtub! People have been bathing in artificial facilities since about 3300 BC, so there are bound to be some great bathtub stories in our history books. I found a few interesting ones.


The ancient Greek inventor Archimedes discovered the physics of displacement while soaking in a bathtub. The water rose when he got into the tub, and he figured you could measure the volume of all kinds of objects that way. As the story goes, he jumped up from the bath, shouted "Eureka!" and ran around naked telling people of his discovery. The Emperor had asked whether the royal crown was pure gold. Archimedes measured the volume of the crown by water displacement and compared that to the volume of an equal weight of pure gold. The volumes were different, indicating that the crown had lighter material underneath the gold.

Millard Fillmore's Bathtub


H.L. Mencken wrote "A Neglected Anniversary" in the New York Evening Mail in 1917. The article gave a history of the bathtub in America, with facts like bathtubs were outlawed at one time, and that Millard Fillmore installed the first bathtub in the white house. The entire column was a work of fiction. Mencken said it was just a bit of fun, but others suspect that he wanted to prove the point that readers will believe anything printed. And they did! He admitted the hoax in print in 1926, but the genie was out of the bottle. Books, magazines, newspapers, and classroom teachers have passed on the "fact" about Millard Fillmore through the 20th century, and even into the internet age. The entire article is here. The actual first bathtub in the white house is hard to pin down, since early presidents bathed in tubs that were brought in and filled with water heated on stoves, at least as far back as James Madison. Water pipes were installed in the white house in 1833, during Andrew Jackson's administration.

Ship's Bathtub


A bathtub on a Navy ship? Battleships are designed to carry as much equipment and as many men as needed without wasting an inch of space. But an exception was made for the USS Iowa When the ship was to take President Franklin Roosevelt to the Cairo Conference and the Tehran Conference in 1943, a bathtub was installed for his convenience. Roosevelt had been crippled by Guillain-Barré syndrome since 1921, and would have had a hard time taking a shower. The USS Iowa is now looking for a home as a museum ship.

The Oversized President


William Howard Taft was the heaviest US president at 332 pounds. Early in his administration (1909-1913) he became stuck in the white house bathtub, and had a larger one installed. In 1912, he took his own oversized tub onto the battleship Arkansas for a trip from Key West to Colon. It was not permanently installed. In 1915, the New York Times printed a story of how Taft caused a hotel flood by displacing water in a bathtub in New Jersey.

Death in a Tub


There have been a few famous people who have died in a bathtub. Thomas Merton, an influential Trappist monk and theological writer died at the age of 53 when he stepped out of a bathtub in Bangkok in 1968. He touched a poorly-grounded electric fan and was electrocuted. Singer Jim Morrison died in a Paris bathtub of a heart attack in 1971. He was only 27, and speculation is that the heart attack was drug-related. This account has been disputed and the whole story may never be known.

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]