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A Brief History of Presidential Vacations

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Wikimedia Commons

We're in the throes of summer vacation season, but at least one American is still on the job. While it's rumored that President Obama will follow in the footsteps of President Clinton and vacation on Martha's Vineyard, he hasn't had a chance to break out his Bermuda shorts just yet. When Obama does take off, though, he'll join in the grand tradition of presidential vacations, like these notable ones:

1. Abe Lincoln Doesn't Go Too Far

Far-flung vacations are nice, but President Lincoln preferred to stay a bit closer to home. When Lincoln needed a getaway from the heat and political turmoil of Civil War-era Washington, D.C., he headed to a different part of Washington, D.C. From 1862 to 1864 Lincoln spent June through November living in a cottage atop a hill at the Soldiers' Home a few miles from the White House. Lincoln apparently loved the slight change of scenery, which meant slightly cooler temperatures and a chance to ride his horse each morning. If you're considering a stay-cation this year, consider this Honest Abe's endorsement.

2. FDR Heats Up Georgia

Some presidents choose to head to their hometowns or a beachside resort for their vacations, but Franklin Roosevelt preferred to travel to western Georgia. Warm Springs, Georgia, is the home of (you guessed it!) warm springs that supposedly had therapeutic value for polio sufferers. FDR, who had contracted his own paralytic illness in 1921, started visiting Warm Springs in 1924 in the hope that exercising in the springs' warm waters would cure him.

Although the springs didn't reverse his illness, FDR felt like his time at the resort alleviated his symptoms somewhat. In 1927 he bought the resort he'd been staying at, and in 1932 he ordered a six-room Georgia pine house to be built on the property. This house was FDR's retreat throughout his presidency and became known as the Little White House.

FDR was sitting for a portrait at the Little White House when he died of a stroke in April 1945. Today, the house is part of Georgia's state park system and is open to visitors; it's been preserved to look almost exactly as it did the day FDR died.

3. Movie Cowboy Does Real Ranching

Think George W. Bush was the first president to sneak away from the White House to spend time on his ranch? Not quite. At the end of his second term as Governor of California in 1974, Ronald Reagan paid just over half a million dollars to acquire Rancho del Cielo in California's Santa Ynez Mountains.

The 688-acre ranch, complete with stables and a 1500-square-foot adobe house, was Reagan's go-to vacation destination while he was in office, and he entertained some big names there, including Margaret Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth II, and Mikhail Gorbachev, who gamely wore a cowboy hat during his visit.

4. LBJ Does Some Ranching, Too

Texan Lyndon Johnson was very involved in the everyday operations of his ranch. Johnson, who had gotten into ranching in 1951, grew his LBJ Ranch into a 2700-acre spread populated by 400 head of Hereford cattle.

Johnson was no absentee owner when he was in Washington, either. Johnson frequently headed back on vacations and supposedly drove his foreman crazy by calling every day to talk about the weather on the ranch or how the pastures looked. Today, the National Park Service maintains LBJ's spread as a working ranch, complete with a herd of cattle descended from the Herefords Johnson bred.

5. George W. Bush Initiates a War on Brush

George W. Bush followed in LBJ's footsteps and went to his own Texas ranch when he needed a getaway. Prairie Chapel Ranch, a 1583-acre spread Bush owns near Crawford, Texas, served as the secondary White House throughout Bush's presidency, and he was often shown clearing brush during vacations.

Bush wasn't just doing farm work, though. He exhorted visitors to join the "President's 100-Degrees Club" by running three miles or biking 10 after the mercury hit 100 degrees. Anyone who could pull of the feat got a specialized Under Armour shirt as recognition. We can only hope one of the many foreign dignitaries Bush entertained at the ranch "“ including Vladimir Putin, Tony Blair, Silvio Berlusconi, Ariel Sharon, and Saudi King Abdullah "“ managed to get one of the coveted shirts into their suitcases.

6. Nixon Gets the Right Ice Cubes

When Richard Nixon wanted a break from Washington, he headed to a modest ranch home he owned on Key Biscayne off Miami. Nixon's "Florida White House," which he visited 50-plus times during his tenure in office, eventually swelled to include three houses and a floating helipad, which the Department of Defense installed at a taxpayer expense of $400,000. (There was plenty of room for taxpayer outrage at the $625,000 total the government spent sprucing up the Florida White House; one itemized expense was $621 for a replacement icemaker because "the President does not like ice with holes in it.")

Given that this house was Nixon's retreat, it's no surprise that some shady dealings transpired on the premises. Nixon allegedly discussed plans for the Watergate break-in at the house, and he holed up there when the coverup came to light. The house fell into disrepair after Nixon sold it, and in 2004 it was razed to make room for a new building.

The Florida White House wasn't Nixon's only retreat, though. He bought a mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean in San Clemente, California shortly after taking office in 1969. Nixon dubbed his new digs "La Casa Pacifica," but the press quickly started referring to the spread as "the Western White House." This house wasn't cheap for taxpayers, either; the government dropped over a million dollars improving this home with temporary office quarters for staffers, helipads, and an upgraded heating system.

7. FDR's Successor Gets His Own Little White House

Harry Truman may have been from Missouri, but he headed south when he needed some R&R. Truman started suffering from exhaustion in late 1946, and his physicians recommended a warm weather vacation to revitalize the President.

Truman took his vacation in a converted duplex in Key West that already held some history. The house, which was originally built in 1890 for the commandant and paymaster of Key West's naval base, had already hosted William Howard Taft while he was in office in 1912. When Thomas Edison developed 41 new weapons to aid in the American efforts in World War I, he spent six months living in the house. Once Truman visited the house, though, it quickly became known as Truman's Little White House. He ended up spending 175 days in Key West over the course of his two terms in office. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy later used the house while they were in office, and it's now open as a tourist attraction.

8. Teddy Roosevelt Goes Bear Hunting

Lounging on the beach is great, but do you really think Teddy Roosevelt would miss the opportunity to do something manly? Roosevelt's vacation in 1905 took him to the Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs, CO, where he stayed for three weeks while bear hunting.

9. Kennedy Retreats to His Compound

Starting in 1926, Joseph P. Kennedy began taking his family to Hyannisport, Massachusetts, on vacation each summer. His son John liked the area so much that in 1956 he bought a cottage of his own near his parents' digs, and the family soon purchased a third cottage in the area, giving rise to the name "the Kennedy Compound." JFK used his cottage as a base of operations for his presidential campaign and later vacationed there each summer he was in office.

10. George H.W. Bush Prefers Not to Ranch

Not to be outdone by the Kennedys, the Bush family has an even older compound of their own in Kennebunkport, Maine. In 1903 George H. Walker, the grandfather of George H.W. Bush, built a great mansion on his oceanfront estate in Kennebunkport, and the property has remained in the family ever since.

George H.W. Bush used the Kennebunkport compound as his vacation home during his presidency, and George W. Bush made a few getaways to the house as well. Between father and son, they've entertained some pretty big names at their summer house, including Yitzhak Rabin, Vladimir Putin, and Nicolas Sarkozy.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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