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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:


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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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