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3 Big Cheeses in American Politics (and the Commotion They Caused)

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Ed note: This week we're proud to have cheese expert and historian David Clark guest blogging with us. Today, he's reporting on three huge cheeses gifted to America's elected leaders, and the ruckuses they caused. Enjoy!

1. Thomas Jefferson and the Mammoth of Cheshire

When Thomas Jefferson became president in 1801, the people of Cheshire, Massachusetts, got very excited. As a community of Republican Baptists in a region dominated by Federalist Congregationalists, they had suffered their share of legal discrimination; and they believed that Jefferson would enforce a more decisive split between church and state, promoting the cause of religious liberty and bettering the lot of Cheshire.

So what did the good people of Cheshire do in the heat of enthusiasm? They crafted a 1235 pound cheese to bestow on the new president -- a token of their trust and admiration. Town elder John Leland, an eccentric and energetic activist, spearheaded the effort. A massive press was constructed, and on a designated day in July it was ceremoniously filled with curd from all the milk of all the town's cows. (All the cows except, of course, those tainted beasts owned by Federalists: Leland and company wanted to ensure the political purity of their gift.) At last the nascent cheese was dedicated, a hymn was sung; and after a period of pressing and curing, the Mammoth Cheshire Cheese was inscribed with a Jeffersonian inscription on its rind: "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God." Soon after, it began a month-long journey to the White House.

The traveling cheese sparked plenty of commotion and ballyhoo on its way. Crowds gathered to watch the "Ultra-Democratic, Anti-Federalist Cheese of Cheshire" pass; newspapers roared with endorsements or ridicule. Then on New Year's Day, 1802, Leland and his monster cheese finally reached Washington, where Jefferson graciously accepted the honor (although he later insisted on paying $200 for the gift).

In his speech for the occasion, the eloquent Founder said, "I shall cause this auspicious event to be placed upon the archives of the nation, while I shall ever esteem this occasion as one of the happiest in my history." Then they cut the cheese with pomp and fanfare, and the snacking began. Reports vary, but it would appear that White House inhabitants were still munching on Cheshire cheese for anywhere from six months to three years.

2. Old Hickory's Farewell Cheese Feast

The Mammoth of Cheshire was impressive, even intimidating, but not the last word on giant political cheeses. Before long an even larger cheese stormed Capital Hill. In 1835, a New York farmer decided to display his affection for President Andrew Jackson by sending a 1400 lb cheese to the White House.

jackson cheese.pngJackson's behemoth cheese was also graced with a motto: "Our union, it must be preserved." The cheese ripened for a couple of years while Old Hickory figured out what to do with it. Then, eleven days before his term ended, Jackson threw open his doors and invited anyone who could walk, ride, crawl, or slither into his abode for the cheese feast of the ages. He may not have thought through the consequences. Close to 10,000 guests appeared --  attracted, perhaps, by an odor that filled the city. They stuffed cheese into mouths and pockets, stomped it into the carpet and upholstery, dropped it into sofas, and even hid some in flower pots. When faced with 1400 lbs of cheddar, the American People behaved like manic squirrels before a long winter.
Some sources claim that Jackson's prize cheese was devoured within two hours, and only a tiny morsel was left for the president himself; others believe that Jackson's successor, Martin Van Buren, was stuck with 700 pounds of leftovers, which he managed to rid himself of two years later at a public auction for charity. Either way, Van Buren certainly inherited a stench: though the White House was turned upside down and thoroughly scrubbed, the redolent specter of Jackson's cheese would haunt it well into the next president's term.

3. The Cheese (and Cider) that Caused a Riot

Smaller cheeses can cause big fiascos, too. Mrs. Longley of Maine probably didn't anticipate any trouble when she gifted a cheese weighing several hundred pounds to Governor John Fairfield, whom she greatly admired, in 1840. And Fairfield certainly meant well when he offered the cheese to his state's House of Representatives, for a bit of refreshment and a break from the serious business of governing.

It's up for debate whether Col. John Otis meant well when he presented a barrel of hard cider to go with Mrs. Longley's cheese. There's no doubt, however, that the "roguish wag" who secretly spiked Otis' cider with brandy had anything but innocent intentions. He slipped in so much booze that Maine's legislative branch quickly unwound. When the Speaker attempted to resume business, a crowd of (unwittingly) intoxicated lawmakers clamored for the floor. None would yield; those not on their feet egged the contenders on; and the Speaker became hoarse shouting into the bedlam. Nothing could be done. The combined force of cheese and spiked cider was too much for Republican government. So the Speaker moved to adjourn the House, only to be shouted down by a thunderous chorus of Nays. Helpless and discouraged, the Speaker sighed and washed his hands of it. He adjourned anyway, rose from his seat and left the mayhem to itself.

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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]