CLOSE
Original image

The Evolution of the Inaugural Ball

Original image

On January 20th, a new president will take office in Washington, DC. There will be a big parade, a swearing-in ceremony, and boxes moving in and out of the White House. Then the balls begin at night. Inaugural balls were once the most elegant and sophisticated affairs in the nation, although they were joyous occasions, too. Now they are a once-in-a-lifetime event, because so many people who attend say they won't ever do that again!

For the inauguration of George Washington in 1789, the custom of the inaugural ball hadn't yet been established. A fancy dress ball was held in New York a week after he was sworn in. Washington particularly enjoyed dancing the minuet. A good time was had by all, and subsequent presidents (or First Ladies) strove to match the elegance of the celebration. Dolley Madison, wife of James Madison, was the first president's wife to attend inauguration ceremonies, and the first First Lady to host an official inaugural ball, in 1809. Tickets for the event cost $4, equivalent to $50 today. Madison had experience in this area, as she had played White House hostess for president Jefferson on several social occasions. In fact, Madison was the first woman to be referred to as the First Lady.

440grant.jpg

Ulysses S. Grant's inaugural ball in 1869 became a free-for-all as too many guests competed for too little food until a fight broke out! Grant's 1873 ball didn't fare even that well. A temporary building was constructed to accommodate the anticipated crowd, and temperature outside plunged to four degrees below zero. The food froze, the champagne was slushy, and worst of all, 100 canaries brought in to sing froze to death!

440grovercleveland.jpg

The elegance of the inaugural ball has given way to the massive crowds and budgetary restraints of modern times. The ball held when Grover Cleveland was inaugurated in 1893 was the epitome of elegance.

A 120-piece orchestra led by John Philip Sousa played for the guests, who could pause from dancing to nibble on 60,000 oysters, 10,000 chicken croquettes, 150 gallons of lobster salad and 1,300 quarts of ice cream, among other things.

440Johnson1965.jpg

Things have toned down a lot since then. Space was at a premium at Lyndon Johnson's 1965 inaugural balls. "Never have so many paid so much to dance so little," Johnson quipped. In 1977, Jimmy Carter insisted on scaling back the luxury and called the balls "parties" instead of balls. At Bill Clinton's 1997 inaugural balls, water cost $2 and sandwiches cost $5.50.

440bush1989.jpg

In modern times, checking coats has become so much of a problem at inaugural balls that the coat-check fiasco is almost a tradition in itself. In 1985, people were trying to claim their coats and furs days after the inaugural balls were over. A 1989 ball saw a riot develop when people couldn't retrieve their coats. In 1997, police were called in to control irate crowds who had trouble claiming their coats. The crowds and experiences of previous balls inspire insiders to publish "survival guides" for those attending this year. Their advice? Wear flat shoes, eat before you go, and leave your coat in the car.

440truman.jpg

Some presidential inaugurations had no balls. In 1853 Franklin Pierce requested that the ball be canceled as he was grieving the death of his son. Woodrow Wilson in 1913 and Warren G. Harding in 1921 had no balls because they thought the custom was too extravagant. Roosevelt worked through the night during his first inauguration, and canceled celebrations for his next three because of World War II. Official balls returned with Harry Truman in 1949. Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1953 inauguration saw two balls to accommodate crowds, and his second inauguration had four. The number of official balls rose to fourteen for Bill Clinton's second inauguration in 1997, but fell for subsequent presidents. There will be ten official balls for Barack Obama's inauguration on January 20th.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
entertainment
arrow
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
Original image
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]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES