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Dead Pigeons and Other Guests From Past Inaugurations

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Inaugural guests have a checkered history that dates all the way back to Andrew Jackson's inauguration in 1829, when thousands of guests flooded the White House for a celebration of the populist leader that quickly devolved into a debauched riot. Since then, there have been a number of notable guests at inaugurations, some more welcome than others. Here are a few of our favorites:

1. Dead pigeons

Richard Nixon didn't want his 1973 inauguration to be marred by a bunch of annoying pigeons. He requested that tree branches along the parade route be treated with a chemical called Roost No More, which would supposedly make the birds' feet itch so they wouldn't want to perch above Tricky Dick's motorcade. The inaugural committee spent $13,000 to comply with this anti-pigeon policy, but Nixon got a bit more than he expected. The pigeons didn't just sit on the branches, they wolfed down the Roost No More, which proved to be highly toxic to birds. Instead of dealing with the minor hassle of live pigeons roosting in trees, Nixon's parade was marred by the macabre spectacle of dead and dying pigeons littering the route.

2. A handful of poets

Having a poet read at the inauguration is a relatively new tradition that didn't begin until John F. Kennedy called on Robert Frost to give a reading at his 1961 inaugural. Although Kennedy initially asked Frost to recite his poem "The Gift Outright," Frost decided to jazz things up by writing a completely new poem, "Dedication," for the occasion. Frost's plans went awry when he got up to read his new work, though. The 87-year-old poet no longer had the greatest eyesight, and the bright sun that morning totally obscured the copy of the poem he was trying to read. Ever quick on his feet, Frost pulled himself together and simply recited "The Gift Outright" from memory.

Despite Frost's triumphant performance, the tradition of poetry reading didn't catch on. In fact, Frost's was the only reading until Bill Clinton pulled on poetic star power in 1993 when he tapped Maya Angelou to read "On the Pulse of Morning," and in 1997 he honored his roots by asking Arkansas poet Miller Williams to read. (While Williams' poem was good, more people probably know his famous daughter: Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams.)

3. Chuck Norris

George W. Bush's 2001 inauguration had its share of cultural intrigue. Traditional patriotic anthems sung by a choir of Kentucky youths supplanted the poetry reading, but cultural critics seemed more interested in reveling in the relatively low-wattage guests the Bushes rounded up for the event. The New York Times dryly noted that celebs like Chuck Norris and Meatloaf were slotting in where Hollywood's A-listers had been during the Clinton years. (If the President had needed a roundhouse kick or a melodramatic power ballad, though, he would have been in great shape.) The guest list also included Rick Schroeder, Norm Macdonald and David Spade.

4. Jonathan Lipnicki

Bush's second inauguration in 2005 wasn't a complete turnaround, either. While some pundits debated the propriety of throwing an inaugural bash while the country was at war, admirers still flocked to Washington to take part in the hoopla.

Again, though, the celebrities didn't quite show up en masse. The Creative Coalition's Inaugural Gala sounds like it would be a star-studded affair, right? That really depends on how highly you rank Jerry Maguire child star Lipnicki, Joe Piscopo, Ernie Hudson, Gary Busey, and Joe Pantoliano on your list of stars.

5. No one

The election of 1876 is remembered as a particularly acrimonious one in which Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden fought a ridiculously close race. Since there had been voter intimidation and fraud in four states, it wasn't immediately clear who won the election after voters went to the polls. It wasn't until a bipartisan commission of Congressmen, Senators, and Supreme Court justices investigated all of this chicanery that Hayes officially won the four contested states and the Electoral College vote. (Think of this as sort of a forerunner to the 2000 election, but with more outright fraud and the extra backstory of the Civil War and Reconstruction.) Tilden's supporters were understandably more than a little peeved about this outcome.

According to some historians, Tilden's supporters were so enraged that they might have made some sort of drastic attempt to interrupt the inauguration. To counter any sort of disturbance, Hayes secretly took his oath of office in the White House's Red Room in a private ceremony on Saturday, March 3, 1877. Now that there was no way Hayes' inaugural festivities could be disrupted by the sore losers, the administration staged a second "inauguration" two days later in which Hayes repeated the whole ceremony and gave the traditional inaugural address.

It's worth noting, though, that history probably didn't miss out on any raging party when Hayes had his real closed-door inauguration. Hayes was famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) for detesting alcohol and absolutely condemned drinking. He was so firm in his beliefs that he and his wife, Lucy, adamantly refused to serve any booze in the White House during their entire four-year stay.

6. Top hats

You'll notice something if you look at old inauguration photos: the president-elect is almost always wearing a top hat. For years, one of the odder parts of the pomp and circumstance of the inaugural festivities was that the man about to get sworn in always donned a top hat. It's not clear when or why this tradition started, but it dates back to at least Garfield's inauguration in 1881. Why it endured long after top hats went out of style is up for debate, although some historians speculate that wearing the formal out-of-date headgear gave the inauguration another little touch of ceremony. (Scholars are almost unanimous in their belief that this awkward sartorial choice was not part of an elaborate homage to a favorite Monopoly piece.)

Kennedy was the last president to sport a top hat at his inauguration in 1961. No-nonsense Lyndon Johnson left the fashion statement off the guest list in 1965, thereby depriving the world of what would sure have been hilarious photos of LBJ in a ridiculous hat. The Huffington Post has a short slideshow featuring presidents in their top hats; it's definitely worth a look.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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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]

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