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The Quick 10: 10 First Lady Fashion Faux Pas

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Michelle Obama is both lauded and disparaged for her fashion choices, especially her recent decision to wear (gasp) shorts while riding Air Force One. But she's hardly the first to choose outfits a little outside of the norm for a First Lady. Here are 10 FLOTUSes (FLOTI?) before her who shocked the nation with their fashion faux pas"¦ or were they just fashion forward?

1. Frances Cleveland was much younger than her Presidential husband "“ 27 years younger, to be exact. So, it makes sense that her fashions were a bit more youthful than a lot of her female White House peers: she wore gowns that showed a lot of skin for the times and loved to show off her bare neck, shoulders and arms. The nation loved Frances and scads of young women copied her scandalously bare look, much to the chagrin of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. They drew up a petition and had copies sent to various branches, then circulated the petitions across the country in an attempt to get Mrs. Cleveland to please think about her position as a role model for young ladies. Their pleas went ignored.

photo12. Frances was hardly the first to expose the nation to a wicked amount of décolletage, though. That trend goes all the way back to Mary Todd Lincoln (pictured). Abe's wife absolutely adored shopping and racked up a huge debt on clothes, lots of them showing off her ample assets. Lincoln didn't appreciate this. "Mother, it is my opinion, if some of that tail were nearer the head, it would be in better style," he once said. She also liked to wear flowers on her head, but not a subtle bloom tucked behind the ear "“ she wore such copious amounts that at least on one occasion, a senator remarked to his wife that Mrs. Lincoln saw it fit to festoon her head with a flower pot.

3. We can keep going back to First Ladies who were fond of exposing a little bosom "“ or in the case of Dolley Madison, a lot. Dolley used to be a Quaker, so the expanse of bare skin that she liked to show was especially scandalous for her. First Lady Abigail Adams once wrote in a letter that Dolley unabashedly resembled "a nursing mother." There's a story that Dolley ran across an old friend who had also been a Quaker, but left the faith. Nevertheless, she was surprised to see him without the traditional black hat that Quakers once wore, and remarked with, "Brother, where is thy broadbrim?" The friend is reported to have looked rather pointedly at her cleavage before responding, "Sister, where is thy kerchief?"

4. Jackie Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt and Lady Bird Johnson all wore pants on informal occasions such as horse riding, but it wasn't until 1972 and Pat Nixon that a First Lady actually appeared in a formal magazine picture proudly donning what was formerly thought of as strictly menswear.

5. Long before Obama outraged PETA with his fly-swatting, Ida McKinley upset the Audubon Society with a certain accessory she was fond of. It was an ornamental display of feathers called an aigrette, and she wasn't the only one who loved it "“ American ladies so took to the style that the bird the feathers came from, the egret, became endangered. The Audubon Society issued a formal protest against Ida.

6. Eleanor Roosevelt was always on the go and wasn't much concerned about her appearance or being a fashion plate. It wasn't abnormal for her to show up somewhere with a net around her hair or a white scarf tied around it, which some reporters said looked like a rag.

photo27. When Rosalynn Carter reused a gown for her husband's Presidential Inauguration in 1977, people immediately began talking. How dare she wear an old gown for such a formal occasion "“ how disrespectful of the Presidency! But she was really just being practical and didn't like spending the money for a one-time-use dress. That's Rosalynn, Amy, and the gown in the picture to the left.

8. Mamie Eisenhower loved clothes, and she loved pink. Barbie would have felt perfectly at home in the White House during Ike's two terms, because Mamie decked the place out with pink candles and pink tablecloths and even served pink desserts at formal functions when she could get away with it. With tongues firmly in cheeks, the press dubbed the White House "The Pink Palace" for eight years, until the Kennedys came along to undo all of Mamie's Pepto décor.

9. As a lady of the Victorian Era, it would have been strange if Julia Grant had worn anything but the elaborately decorated dresses and gowns of the era. But she preferred her outfits so dripping with beads, embroidery, lace and ribbons that she was once described as looking like a couch.

10. Finally, my favorite that I can't seem to find corroboration for anywhere. Maybe you helpful _flossers will remember this event. Apparently, the First Lady Who Said No unwittingly exposed the entire world to her lingerie when she wore black underwear with a white dress. Even if this isn't so, Nancy Reagan did set tongues wagging when she wore an inaugural gown worth a reported $25,000, and continued to wear extravagantly expensive clothing throughout her tenure as FLOTUS. She always denied spending extraordinary sums on her attire, saying that to spend the amount the press said she spent, she'd have to be wearing sable underwear.

Are there any First Lady fashion faux pas that immediately come to mind for you? Share them in the comments! This seems hideous to me today, but I do have to remember that this photo was taken during the era of Blossom and funky headwear:


You can follow Stacy Conradt on Twitter.

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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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Library of Congress
10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.


One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.


WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.


Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.


Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”


The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.


Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.


Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.


The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.


Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.