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The Quick 10: Facts About 10 Presidential Inaugurations

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I figure by next week at this time, everyone will be all inaugurationed out, so I'm getting to you early with the trivia. Plus, this way you can impress people with your presidential knowledge when people at work (or school) are talking about the details.

1. Jimmy Carter's inauguration was distinctive for a few reasons. First of all, he was the first president to be sworn in by a nickname. Second, his Inauguration Day parade included a Macy's Parade-like balloon of a peanut to celebrate his past. And third, his wife, Rosalyn, was also the only First Lady (in recent history, anyway) to wear an old gown for the swearing-in ceremony. Seeing no reason it shouldn't be worn again, she wore a dress she had worn to a gubernatorial ceremony in Georgia.

atchison2. Zachary Taylor refused to be sworn in on a Sunday, because he was very strict about "keeping holy the Sabbath." The position of president couldn't just be vacant until Monday, so the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, David Rice Atchison, was brought in as a pinch hitter. There's some debate as to whether this actually makes him the 12th president and Zachary Taylor the 13th, but obviously, it's generally accepted that he doesn't count. He didn't even stake claim to the title, and repeatedly told people that he slept through most of his day as president. He must have had a good sense of humor about the whole thing, though, as evidenced by the inscription on his gravestone. Picture by Wikipedia user Umbricht

3. Calvin Coolidge had some interesting people swear him in as president.

The first time, after Warren G. Harding died in office, Coolidge was sworn in by his notary public dad. They were at a farm in Vermont and had to conduct the whole thing by kerosene lamp. The second time, he was sworn in by former president William Howard Taft, who was chief justice of the Supreme Court at the time.

4. Thomas Jefferson walked to and from his own inauguration.
5. Warren G. Harding was the first to arrive at his inauguration via car.

6. When Andrew Johnson was inaugurated as vice president, he was totally trashed. He was very ill from typhoid fever and drank whiskey to try to numb the aches and pains a little. Except he overdid it and ended up slurring his way through his oaths. Then he tried to swear in the new senators, but got too confused and had to let a Senate clerk complete his duties instead. "The inauguration went off very well except that the Vice President Elect was too drunk to perform his duties and disgraced himself and the Senate by making a drunken foolish speech," Senator Zachariah Chandler reported. "I was never so mortified in my life, had I been able to find a hole I would have dropped through it out of sight."

BEANS7. More than three tons of Jelly Belly jelly beans were used in Ronald Reagan's inauguration in 1981. When he was governor of California, he developed a jelly bean habit because he was giving up smoking and the jelly beans helped distract him. He became known for it, so red, white and blue jelly beans were used for his inauguration celebrations. The blueberry Jelly Belly, in fact, was created just for this purpose.

8. Barack Obama may be using the same Bible to take his oath as Abraham Lincoln did, but Teddy Roosevelt still has one up on him: he actually wore one of Lincoln's rings. John Hay, Roosevelt's secretary of state, was also Abraham Lincoln's private secretary (he was only 22 at the time) and was there when Lincoln was assassinated. Hay was given the ring by Mary Todd Lincoln and let Roosevelt use it in his 1905 inauguration.

9. The Adams presidents were apparently sore losers. When their successors were inaugurated, both John Adams and John Quincy Adams made it a point to be otherwise occupied far out of town.

10. In his inaugural address, James Buchanan announced that he wasn't going to run for re-election. He was true to his word, and maybe that's for the best: he's continually ranked as one of the worst presidents the U.S. has ever had.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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