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The Quick 10: 10 First Ladies Who Never Wanted the Title

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As we all know, Michelle Obama is set to take the First Lady position tomorrow, and she has made it clear that she's not going to be a wallflower. This trend has been pretty prominent in recent years, but it wasn't always like that. In fact, some First Ladies never would have accepted the job at all if they had any choice in the matter.

martha1. Martha Washington. Yup, our very first FL hated the job. That doesn't mean that she wasn't good at it "“ by all accounts, she was a very gracious hostess with a quite charitable demeanor. But she hated that she and George were put in the position in the first place. Thanks to the war, she and George never saw one another; in fact, he was home at Mount Vernon for just two days for its entire duration. Naturally, when the war ended, Martha was looking forward to having her husband to herself... but then, the country decided that only George could possibly serve as president. Since he died just two years after his presidency ended, George and Martha never really did get tons of alone time.

2. Rachel Jackson. Actually, she never had to be First Lady, since John Quincy Adams' campaign against her husband pretty much killed her. Rachel was married to Lewis Robards before Old Hickory, but found very quickly after the wedding that the guy was a cad. He was jealous to a fault, to the point where Rachel was completely unable to live with him, so he sent her to live with her parents who ran a boarding house. While she was there, one of the patrons was none other than Andrew Jackson. They fell in love, but by that time, Robards decided her "punishment" was over and made her come back. Andrew knew she was miserable and rushed off to rescue her; she and Robards divorced and she and Andrew married. Sort of. It turns out Rachel's divorce papers hadn't gone through, even though Robards told her they had. And it's not like Jacksons jumped the gun - she was told the divorce was final in December of 1790; she and Andrew got married in August 1791. They sorted it all out and got legally married in 1794, but this didn't stop John Quincy Adams and his supporters from dredging up accusations of adultery more than 30 years later. Rachel had a history of heart problems and couldn't take the personal attacks; she died just two weeks prior to Jackson's inauguration. It's probably for the best - no doubt more gossip would have spread during her tenure as FL.

anna3. Anna Harrison. Anna is from the Martha Washington School of just wanting to spend some well-deserved time with her husband. Her husband, William Henry Harrison, was a secretary and delegate to the House of Representatives and also the territorial governor of Indiana. After the Battle of Tippecanoe, he received even more political accolades and served in all kinds of positions all over the country. Poor Anna was stuck at home with 10 children "“ at least, for a while. By 1840, six of them had died. That was the year that Harrison won his presidential bid, and Anna made no secret that she wasn't happy about it. She cried all the time and had no qualms telling people that she was terrified by the whole thing. And she was right "“ her husband's new position DID kill him, but not in the way most would have thought: after giving an inauguration speech in the cold with no coat, Harrison died of pneumonia in April of 1841. Anna had been finishing things up at home and was planning on joining her husband in Washington in May. To this day, she's the only First Lady who never made it to the White House (once the White House existed, I mean).

4. Margaret Taylor. Zachary Taylor was a soldier whose job moved him all over the unestablished U.S., and Margaret went with him with six kids in tow. Two of their daughters died by 1820, and by 1840 they had finally settled in one place where Margaret could make a real home. Before that, she had literally been raising her children in military encampments - tents, for the most part. Zachary was instrumental in the Mexican-American War and his successes made him a shoo-in for the 1848 presidential election. Margaret so detested the idea that she prayed every single night for his defeat, but no dice. She refused to play the part and stayed up in her room praying and doing needlework; all of her First Lady duties were delegated to their daughter. When Zachary died in 1850 after eating spoiled cherries (although this cause is often debated), men actually had to tear her off of his corpse so they could bury the body.

5. Abigail Fillmore. Her husband was Taylor's veep, so when Taylor met his strange end, Millard stepped in. Abigail wasn't quite as against the position as Margaret Taylor was, but she wasn't happy about it, either. All of the dinners and ceremonies and extravagant dresses and speeches bored her to death, and she wasn't very good at hiding her boredom. Plus, her health wasn't great - she suffered from horrible headaches and had some breathing problems. When her husband was elected, she pretty much took the Margaret Taylor approach and avoided her social duties when possible, delegating to her daughter, Abby, instead. She was beyond thrilled when Millard lost his re-election bid and couldn't wait to get back to Buffalo, N.Y., where he would practice law and she could rest at home and see him every day. Tragically, she caught pneumonia at Franklin Pierce's inauguration and died three weeks later. How sad is that?!

jane6. Jane Pierce. That's three First Ladies in a row who absolutely hated the job. Poor Jane Pierce is pretty tragic, though. She and Franklin had three little boys. The first one died just a couple of days after birth, and the second one died of typhus at the age of four. We'll get to the third in a second. Jane hated her husband's political career so much that Franklin actually turned down positions in the White House, including James K. Polk's Attorney General. But he was secretly in talks behind her back to run for the presidency in 1852, which she was not happy about. So it was even worse when just a couple of weeks before Franklin's inauguration, she and her remaining son were traveling in New England when a train jumped the tracks. Eleven-year-old Benjamin Pierce was killed by debris right before his poor mother's eyes. She refused to attend her husband's inauguration and no doubt would have never moved into the White House at all if left to her own decision. His people coaxed her into it, but she decorated the entire thing with black banners, wore nothing but funerary garb, rarely left her room and had her aunt take over all First Lady duties.

7. Eliza Johnson. She taught her illiterate husband to read and write, gestures she probably regretted later in his career. She wasn't nuts about being the Second Lady, so when Lincoln was assassinated and Andrew was made POTUS, she was even more annoyed with the whole thing. She decided to devote all of her energy to Andrew and none of it to the First Lady gig: she gave her duties to their daughter, refused interviews, and spent all of her time mending Andrew's clothes, making sure he was eating right and clipping newspaper articles that involved him.

8. Eleanor Roosevelt once said she had never aspired to be the president's wife, finishing with "And I don't want it now." (SHe was First Lady at the time.) And she meant it, at least at first. Before she was First Lady of the U.S., she was First Lady of New York, and she adored it. She was worried that her new position would mostly have her holding tea parties and sitting quietly in a corner, "behaving". She settled into the role, obviously, and realized that she could use it to further her own causes and become a politician in her own right.

9. Bess Truman. Eleanor's successor cried when she found out she would be taking over the First Lady role. She had watched previous presidents and their families be ripped apart by the media and the public - every scrap of privacy they had splashed all over the newspapers and trotted out by political opponents. She loathed the idea of the same thing happening to her family. It seemed like he didn't have much of a shot at re-election, so when he won, she was disappointed. However, it was then that she took it upon herself to have the
White House restored to its former glory. At the time, it was in such a state of disrepair that their daughter's piano nearly fell through the floor. Although the consensus was to demo the whole thing and start over with a new building, Bess lobbied to have it renovated and restored instead, preserved for history.

pat10. Pat Nixon, and who can blame her? The only reason she agreed to support Tricky Dick's political career in the first place was because he told her that their family would always maintain their privacy. She still hated it, and he kept promising her that after this term, he would call it quits. He was supposed to quit after his Senate term ended in 1956, but, obviously, he ended up running for president in 1960. She was devastated when he lost, but only because she had put so much time and effort into something she absolutely hated, all for nothing. He announced to a friend in 1962 that he was going to run for governor of California, and Pat abruptly left the dinner table in tears.

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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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Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]