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6 Presidential Siblings and the Headaches They Caused

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Every aspect of the American presidency comes under intense scrutiny, but few parts of a president's life contain as many amusing, slightly sordid anecdotes as their siblings' behavior. When a new president takes office, his ne'er-do-well siblings receive a whole slew of opportunities for corrupt behavior, legal scrapes, and generally humiliating mayhem. Here are a few of our favorites:

1. Neil Bush: Opening Doors When Opportunity Knocks!

Picture 163.pngGeorge W. Bush's younger brother Neil certainly hasn't done much to make his brother's rocky political life any easier. Neil's been making the wrong kind of news since as far back as the 1980s, when as the son of Vice President George H.W. Bush he served as a director of Silverado Savings and Loan, which cost taxpayers an estimated $1 billion when it collapsed. He drew accusations of insider trading chicanery in 1999 when he made nearly $800,000 in three trades of Kopin Corporation stock in a single day; Bush had been a consultant for Kopin and sold on the day the stock's price soared as the result of good news from a client. Bush also had a somewhat dubious-sounding arrangement with Grace Semiconductor, a Chinese company with ties to former Chinese president Jiang Zemin. Despite admittedly not knowing anything about semiconductors, Bush had a deal to receives $2 million in stock and $10,000 for every board meeting he attended to discuss business strategies, a deal that led to claims of influence peddling.

These little business episodes were just appetizers for Bush's truly bizarre 2003 divorce proceedings. His wife Sharon Smith accused Bush of enjoying the company of high-priced escorts on business trips to Thailand and Hong Kong. (Bush's defense: yes, he had sex with these strange women, but they might not have been prostitutes. They just showed up at his door, and he slept with them. No money changed hands.) Not content to let things die with that simple embarrassment of infidelity, Neil's friend John Spalding accused Sharon of pulling out Neil's hair for use in a voodoo curse. Sharon countered that she simply wanted the hair tested for evidence of cocaine use. In either event, the President couldn't have been too pleased as this saga played out in front of the media.

2. Roger Clinton: Codename "Headache"

Picture 133.pngSome presidential siblings wait until their brother takes up residence in the White House to start making trouble. Not Bill Clinton's half-brother Roger, though. By the time Bill had jumped from the Arkansas' governor's mansion to Washington, Roger had already spent a year behind bars for a 1984 cocaine distribution arrest. He then spent much of Bill's two terms trying to realize his dream of becoming an Elvis-like rock star with his band, Politics, and appearing in a string of abysmal movies that must have been almost as embarrassing for Bill as the cocaine arrest. (It's one thing to get in trouble for drug trafficking, but it's quite another to have the poor judgment to appear opposite Pauly Shore in Bio-Dome.) Despite his busy schedule, he still found time to get into an altercation with a stockbroker at a Knicks game in 1993 and later unsuccessfully lobbied for pardons for his drug-dealing chums. Bill actually included Roger's cocaine arrest in his flurry of pardons in 2001; Roger showed his gratitude by promptly getting arrested for drunk driving a month later. It's easy to see why his Secret Service codename was "Headache."

3 & 4. Hugh and Tony Rodham: Brothers in Harm

Picture 145.pngPicture 152.pngDespite the nickname, Roger might not even have been the biggest familial headache Bill Clinton had to deal with during his term. Instead, the Clintons introduced a new species of White House blight: bad presidential brothers-in-law. While Roger was pretty much a run-of-the-mill troublemaker, Hillary's brothers Hugh and Tony were bumbling power grabbers who kept making almost comical attempts to capitalize on their sister's high station. In 1999, Hugh, a former Florida public defender, and Tony, whose resume included work as both a private eye and a repo man, joined in on a $118 million business plan to process and import hazelnuts from the Republic of Georgia. There was a slight hitch though: the brothers' key connection in Georgia was a major political rival of Georgia's president (a key American ally). Bill and Hillary had to work in tandem with National Security Advisor Sandy Berger to talk the brothers out of their hazelnut empire. (We can only hope Roger Clinton would later defend his own antics with, ""¦yeah, but I never attempted to politically destabilize former Soviet republics, did I?")

After this episode, Hugh seemed to start behaving. That image only lasted for a couple of years, though. When Bill Clinton issued the slew of pardons before leaving office in 2001, drug dealer Carlos Vignali and Glenn Braswell, who had peddled a fake baldness cure by mail, received a sentence commutation and a pardon, respectively. Somehow, Hugh Rodham pocketed $400,000 for offering legal help in acquiring the pardons. Although the transaction may have been perfectly legal, it certainly didn't appear all that kosher, and the Clintons suffered further embarrassment when the story broke.

5. Billy Carter: The Mother of all Brothers

Picture 103.pngTruly the standard by which all other presidential sibling's antics are judged, Billy burst onto the national scene as the boisterous, hard-drinking counterpoint to his pious, reserved brother Jimmy. Billy's early antics were amusing and fairly innocuous: he endorsed the legendarily terrible Billy Beer in an effort to make a little cash off of his hard-living image, and he made quips like, "My mother went into the Peace Corps when she was sixty-eight. My one sister is a motorcycle freak, my other sister is a Holy Roller evangelist and my brother is running for president. I'm the only sane one in the family." While he worked hard to convey a roughneck bumpkin image to the press, Billy's confidantes claimed that he was in fact well-read and an able businessman who used his Southern bona fides to help his older brother's political cause. On the other hand, Billy's drinking turned from amusing to tragic as his fame grew.

In 1979, he had to go into rehab to curb his drinking. Around the same time he nearly lost his Georgia home to the IRS for failing to pay a six-figure federal income tax bill for 1978.
Picture 124.pngThe real capper, though, came when Billy began consorting with Libya at a time when relations between the North African nation and the U.S. were starting to strain. In 1978 he made a trip to Libya with a group of Georgia businessmen who were interested in expanding trade with the country; Billy then hosted a Libyan delegation in Atlanta. When questioned about his dealings, Billy responded, "The only thing I can say is there is a hell of a lot more Arabians than there is Jews," a public-relations nightmare for which he later apologized. The damage got worse in 1980 when Billy registered as an agent of the Libyan government and received a $220,000 loan from the Libyans for helping facilitate oil sales. This transaction led to accusations of influence peddling and a Congressional investigation. In short, it was enough to make Jimmy Carter long for the days when his brother's antics only included such little quirks as urinating in public in front of a group of reporters and dignitaries.

6. Donald Nixon: Big Loans for Small Potatoes

Picture 175.pngPrior to 1960, nobody had even heard of Donald Nixon, even though his brother Richard had been VP under Eisenhower. When Richard launched his own presidential campaign against JFK, though, Donald found himself flung into the spotlight. Don was a restaurateur, and not a very good one. In 1954, he was running a chain of Nixon's drive-ins in Whittier, California and fell upon some tough financial times. In an effort to keep the business afloat, he accepted a $205,000 loan from Howard Hughes. "Big Don," as he called himself, never got around to paying Hughes back, and voters had to wonder why a defense contractor like Hughes was suddenly so interested in a chain of burger joints that just happened to be run by the Vice President's rotund brother. Whatever the reasoning, the loan wasn't enough, and the chain went under the following year.
Don caused a second stir in 1969 by once again joining his pal Hughes for a shadowy trip to the Dominican Republic. Nothing came of this episode, but it certainly didn't look good to have Big Don once again flitting about with Hughes. All of this might explain why the press later learned in 1973 that during Nixon had the Secret Service tap Big Don's phone calls lest he do something illegal, or even more problematic embarrassing to his brother.

HONORABLE MENTION: Sam Houston Johnson

Lyndon Johnson's brother loved to have him some drinks. Once hammered, he'd get chatty with the press, a habit that LBJ eventually curbed by placing him under Secret Service surveillance. According to several sources, he'd occasionally pass a bad check, too. Sam Houston Johnson later wrote a book My Brother Lyndon in which he slammed LBJ as a bully who was a difficult boss. As Time put it, "A rivalry with the leader of the free world played hell with Sam's self-image."

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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