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The Bizarre History of White House Pets

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There's a new Portuguese water dog roaming the White House grounds. Now that Sunny has joined Bo, let's look back at some of our favorite White House pets.

Billy: Calvin Coolidge's Pygmy Hippopotamus

Calvin Coolidge may have been known for his reticence, but he showed little of his trademark reserve when it came to acquiring pets. After taking over the presidency upon the death of Warren G. Harding, Coolidge assembled a menagerie that would rival most zoos' collections. He had six dogs, a bobcat, a goose, a donkey, a cat, two lion cubs, an antelope, and a wallaby. The main attraction in his personal zoo, though, was Billy, a pygmy hippopotamus.

Billy was born in Liberia, but was captured at a young age. He came into the possession of tire mogul Harvey Firestone, who gave Billy to President Coolidge as a gift, possibly because Firestone didn't want to feed the critter. (Even a pygmy hippo is still quite rotund; Billy was six feet long and weighed upwards of 600 pounds.)

Coolidge donated Billy to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. Since there were only a handful of pygmy hippos in the U.S. at the time, Billy quickly went to work as a stud, an endeavor at which he found some success. He sired 23 little hippos, and many of the pygmy hippos you see in American zoos today are his descendants.

The White House Gators

Herbert Hoover wanted to put a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage, and...a gator in the Oval Office? It's true. Hoover owned a slew of dogs, but those weren't his only pets. His second son, Allan Henry Hoover, owned a pair of gators that were occasionally allowed to wander around the White House grounds. Sound crazy? Blame John Quincy Adams for setting the precedent. The sixth president also had a pet gator. His was a gift from the Marquis de Lafayette; it lived in a bathroom in the East Room of the White House. According to some reports, he enjoyed using the gator to scare his guests.

Fala: FDR's Traveling Companion

What do you get the Depression-conquering president who has everything? A lapdog. In 1940 Franklin Roosevelt received a Scottish Terrier puppy named Big Boy as an early Christmas gift from a family friend. FDR immediately realized that Big Boy was no name for a presidential companion and rechristened the pooch Murray the Outlaw of Falahill, after a Scottish ancestor. For the sake of simplicity, though, he called his new pal Fala.

FDR-Fala.jpgAfter that, Fala became FDR's inseparable companion and traveled everywhere the President went. The dog "gave" $1 a day to the war effort, generosity that earned him the rank of honorary private in the Army. Each morning when FDR's breakfast tray came in, it included a bone for Fala. Fala also made a famous appearance in one of his master's speeches. When FDR was decrying personal attacks from his political opponents, he jokingly said that it was okay to mock him, but leave Fala alone. "You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I had left him behind on the Aleutian Islands and had sent a destroyer back to find him — at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or 20 million dollars — his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since!" Fala stayed with FDR until the President's death in 1945 and lived in the care of Eleanor Roosevelt until his death in 1952.

Millie: Literary Sensation

When George H.W. Bush took office in 1989, he brought his pet springer spaniel Millie to the White House. The bubbly canine won over the nation's heart so completely that she even collaborated with the First Lady on Millie's Book: As Dictated to Barbara Bush. Millie brought further joy to the Bush family when she gave birth to a litter of six presidential puppies in 1989. Just as her master helped slip one of his boys into the White House, so did Millie: when George W. Bush moved into the Oval Office, so did his dog, Millie's son Spot Fetcher.

Barney, Miss Beazley & India: The W Years

Sadly, Spot Fetcher had to be put down in 2004, but the Bushes weren't pet-deprived. They had a pair of Scottish Terriers named Barney and Miss Beazley, both of whom had websites and appeared in White House-produced web videos. (Your tax dollars adorably at work!) The Bushes also had a black cat named India, who also went by "Willie." The name India rankled some citizens of the country of the same name to the point that many Indians supposedly named their dogs "Bush." The name wasn't meant to be controversial, though; the Bushes merely named their cat after Ruben "El Indio" Sierra, who played for the Texas Rangers while George W. owned the team. Spot Fetcher was similarly named after former Rangers middle infielder Scott Fletcher.

Other First Pets of Note:

Mr. Reciprocity and Mr. Protection — Benjamin Harrison's two opossums. Harrison's son Russell also had a pet goat named Old Whiskers.

Pauline — The last cow to live at the White House. She made milk for President Taft's consumption.

Old Ike — To save cash during World War I, Woodrow Wilson brought in a flock of sheep to take care of the White House's groundskeeping duties. Old Ike, a ram, supposedly chewed tobacco.

ford-liberty.jpgLaddie Boy — Warren G. Harding's beloved Airedale who had his own seat at Cabinet meetings and gave a 1921 "interview" with The Washington Post in which he talked about Prohibition and shortening the workday for guard dogs.

Liberty (pictured) — Gerald Ford's golden retriever hung out in the Oval Office and could supposedly read a sign from Ford that she should go be affectionate to guests—a cute and cuddly way to gracefully end the President's conversations.

Socks and Buddy — President Clinton's faithful cat and the chocolate lab he acquired while in office. Socks didn't like Buddy's youthful friendliness, so the two pets had to be kept separated at all times. The tensions were so bad that the family couldn't keep both pets at the end of Bill's second term, so Socks went to live with Clinton's secretary, Betty Currie.

Gamecocks — Ulysses S. Grant supposedly kept some gamecocks at the White House.

Two tiger cubs — Martin Van Buren received the cats as a gift from the Sultan of Oman. Congress supposedly made him give the gift to a zoo.

Satan — One of Abigail Adams' unfortunately named dogs. She called the other one Juno.

Jonathan Edwards — Theodore Roosevelt received this black bear cub as a gift from supporters in West Virginia who gave the bear the name, he wrote to a friend, "partly because they thought they detected Calvinistic traits in the bear's character."

Dr. Johnson, Bishop Doane, Fighting Bob Evans, and Father O'Grady — Teddy Roosevelt's kids also had these tremendously named guinea pigs.

Josiah — Roosevelt also had a pet badger, of course.

Bonus Trivia: Checkers

nixon-checkers.jpgNixon's dog was immortalized in the "Checkers speech," which Nixon gave while facing allegations of illegal campaign contributions. He said the only gift he'd accepted was a cocker spaniel named Checkers for his daughters. Checkers, however, was never the White House dog. This scandal bubbled up while Nixon was Eisenhower's running mate in the 1952 election, and Nixon gave the Checkers speech to convince Republicans to keep him on the ticket. Although the speech was a success and Nixon later made it to the White House, Checkers never got to be First Dog; he passed away in 1964.

This article originally ran in 2008.

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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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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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