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The White House Gift Guide: 13 Unique Presidential Gifts

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President Barack Obama turns 48 on Tuesday. While the First Family encourages you to send contributions to your favorite charity in lieu of the White House, if you insist on doing some last-minute birthday shopping for 44, you might consider a pair of jeans or a case of Bud Light. For some historical precedent, here's a look back at some of the more interesting presidential gifts.

1. George W. Bush: Raw Lamb

President Bush and his family received about 1,000 gifts per month during his two terms in office. Bush's haul included an iPod from U2 lead singer, Bono, a Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook and vocabulary-building game from the Sultan of Brunei, and an electric harp with a speakerphone from Vietnam. The most unusual gift Bush received may have been the 300 pounds of raw lamb meat from the president of Argentina in 2003. The lamb, like all gifts from overseas, was accepted by the Office of the President on behalf of the nation, and passed along to the General Services Administration. Most non-perishable gifts of state end up in presidential libraries or the National Archives.

2. Bill Clinton: Portraits "“ On a Carpet

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We'll say this for Heydar Aliyev's gift to President Clinton: it was unique. The president of Azerbaijan wanted his gift to be representative of Azerbaijani craftsmanship, so he called upon Kamil Aliyev, a renowned carpet portrait artist. Kamil Aliyev's design featured the First Couple inside a heart-shaped medallion, the first double portrait he ever attempted. "I wanted to convey their lives as one beating heart," he said. While Aliyev designed the carpet and dyed the yarn, 12 young women were employed to help complete the portrait in 10 weeks. Heydar Aliyev presented the carpet to the Clintons in August 1997.

3. George H.W. Bush: Komodo Dragon

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In 1990, the president of Indonesia presented a Komodo dragon to President Bush. Perhaps worried that the venomous, flesh-eating lizard wouldn't play nice with First Dog Millie, Bush donated the dragon, named Naga, to the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. Naga, who sired 32 offspring, died of an abdominal infection at the age of 24 in 2007. During his stay in Cincinnati, Naga was a star attraction, drawing about one million visits each year.

4. Ronald Reagan: Embroidered Saddle

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President Reagan, who was gifted 372 belt buckles while in office, received enough tacking equipment during his time in Washington to outfit an entire stable. Of the several dozen saddles presented to Reagan, few were more ornately decorated than the one above, which was a gift of the president of Algeria in 1985.

5. Jimmy Carter: Metamorphic Portrait

carter-portrait

Mexican president Jose Lopez Portillo commissioned Octavio Ocampo to paint a portrait of President Carter in Ocampo's trademark metamorphic style, which juxtaposes various images within a larger image to create an optical illusion. While it's difficult to see here, Carter's image in the portrait is created out of national symbols, including buildings, flags, sailing ships, and truck convoys. Portillo presented the portrait to Carter in 1979.

6. Richard Nixon: Edible Portraits

A Pakistani man's gift to President Nixon required an unusual accessory to fully appreciate. S. Nabi Ahmed Rizvi provided a magnifying glass inside a plush blue velvet box, along with two snapshots of himself and two grains of rice. One grain of rice featured a portrait of Nixon as president; the other featured a portrait of a young Nixon in the Navy. The gift was displayed as part of the National Portrait Gallery's "To the President: Folk Portraits by the People" exhibit.

7. John F. Kennedy: Carved Peach Pit

JFK-peach

What better way to show your president you admire him than by carving his likeness into a peach pit? R.J. McErlean's remarkable ode to JFK features a portrait of Kennedy and the inscription "President John F. Kennedy of the United States." An eagle on a shield is carved on the left side of the pit, above a depiction of St. Christopher.

8. Harry Truman: Bowling Alley

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A two-lane bowling alley was installed in the White House in 1947 as a birthday gift to President Truman. No matter that he hadn't bowled since he was 19, Truman knocked down seven pins on the first roll at the alley, which was paid for by donors from Truman's home state of Missouri and moved to the Old Executive Office Building in 1955. Truman didn't use the alley much himself "“ he was more of a poker player "“ but the addition was a big hit with Truman's staff, some of whom formed a bowling league.

9. Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Giant Cake

FDR-Cake

The birthday cake presented to FDR on the occasion of his 59th birthday was 5 feet high and weighed 300 pounds. The cake was a gift of the Bakery and Confectionary Workers International Union of America. Along with the cake, the union donated $500 to FDR's "Fight Infantile-Paralysis" campaign.

10. Rutherford B. Hayes: Carved Lemon

When life gives you lemons, make pigs. A lemon carved to look like a pig was presented to President Hayes and later featured in an exhibit at the Herbert Hoover presidential library titled, "Weird and Wonderful: Gifts Fit For a President." Museum director Richard N. Smith said at the time, "It looks a little like you'd expect a 110-year-old lemon to look." While she may or may not have been the inspiration for the bizarre gift, Hayes' wife, Lucy, was nicknamed "Lemonade Lucy" because she banned alcoholic beverages at state functions.

11. Abraham Lincoln: Clothes

While he donated most of the wine and liquor he received to military hospitals, President Lincoln made good use of many of the other gifts showered upon him throughout his presidency. He was inaugurated in a suit donated by Titsworth and Brothers of Chicago, and, according to Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, is reported to have told his wife, "There is one thing to come out of this scrape anyhow. We are going to have some new clothes!"

12. Thomas Jefferson: Cheese

TJ-cheeseOne of the earliest recorded gifts of state was the mammoth cheese presented to President Jefferson by the Republican Baptists in Cheshire, Massachusetts, in 1802. To celebrate Jefferson's election, town elder John Leland inspired his Baptist congregation to manufacture a 1,235-pound cheese to give to the president. When it was finished, the cheese was filled with milk from the town's cows, save for those owned by the hated Federalists. The cheese was inscribed with the phrase "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God" and presented to Jefferson after a month-long journey to Washington on New Year's Day 1802. Jefferson, who had a policy not to accept free gifts, insisted that he pay $200 for the cheese.

13. George Washington: A Federal Holiday

In 1880, Congress created "Washington's Birthday," the first federal holiday to honor an American-born citizen. The holiday was celebrated on February 22 until 1968, when Congress moved it from its fixed day to the third Monday in February as part of the Uniform Monday Holidays Act.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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