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10 Facts About the U.S. Capitol Building

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I admit it: I'm reading the new Dan Brown book. I feel like I should be a little bit embarrassed, but it's the fastest-selling adult novel of all time, so obviously I'm in good company. In case you're not familiar, The Lost Symbol involves the typical Robert Langdon-style hunt for clues and symbols through a bunch of familiar, historic places, including the U.S. Capitol Building. I know Brown is known to take some liberties with history, so I thought I'd look for some of the Capitol's more interesting features for myself.

1. The Capitol was built after Thomas Jefferson held a design competition to elicit entries from some of the finest architects in America.

The prize was $500, but the only one of the submissions that even came close to earning it was one by a French architect. His design would have been too expensive, though, and so the search continued. Finally, a late entry by William Thornton did the trick. Washington and Jefferson both raved over it, and the design was chosen.


2. The Capitol has its own subway.

And I bet it doesn't smell like subways usually smell. It's been there in some variation since 1909 and carries politicians from House and Senate office buildings to the Capitol.

3. George Washington himself laid the cornerstone for the Capitol on September 18, 1793, and, as Dan Brown said, it was a Masonic ceremony.


4. At one point, there were plans for the first president to be buried under the Capitol building in an area called the Crypt.

Designers even received permission from Martha Washington to do so. When the time came to move the body from Mt. Vernon to D.C., plans fell through because Washington's will specified that his final resting place should be Mt. Vernon. The Crypt is now used to keep some of the National Statuary Hall Collection and to house a gift shop. And you can still see where the tomb was going to go — that's it in the picture above.

5. There used to be a law in place that restricted any building in D.C. from being built taller than the Capitol.

It could be equal to the Capitol in height, but no higher than. Passed in 1899, this law didn't last long. It was amended in 1910 and now the Capitol is only the fifth-tallest building in the District of Columbia. It's shorter than the Washington Monument, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Old Post Office and the Washington National Cathedral.


6. The statue that sits atop the dome is called the Statue of Freedom.

If she ever fell off, someone below would be in trouble. At 15,000 pounds, I bet the old gal would do more than a little damage. She's 19-and-a-half feet tall and stepped down from her pedestal for the first time in 1993 for a much-needed restoration (pictured above). Hey, you'd need some spackling too if you were 130 years old.

7. If you've ever thought that the Capitol seems to be backward, you're not alone.

Many people have wondered why the building faces away from the Mall instead of toward it, like most other important buildings and monuments. The reason, according to the Capitol website, is that the east side of the Capitol is the only one with level ground for a proper entrance, so the Capitol and the statue on top face east toward the people who are entering it.

8. The Architects of the Capitol oversee the maintenance, operation and preservation of all of the Capitol buildings and grounds.

Only 11 men have ever served in this position, starting with William Thornton in 1793. The current Architect is Stephen T. Ayers.

9. The Capitol didn't fare too well during the War of 1812 and nearly burned to the ground.

It would have been just ashes if a well-timed storm hadn't put the fire out. The building was pretty well gutted, as was the Library of Congress.


10. The famous dome we know today wasn't added to the building until the 1850s

under the watch of Architect Thomas U. Walter, the fourth Architect. The picture shows the first dome, which third Architect Charles Bulfinch added. This was due to some pretty extensive additions to the Capitol. Although rebuilt after the War of 1812 fiasco, politicians quickly outgrew their workspace as states were added and more representatives filled the building. As the Capitol building was extended to make room, the Bulfinch dome looked out of place and disproportionate. The construction of the new dome took 11 years (Lincoln was sworn in under a half-finished dome) and nearly nine million pounds of iron.

So, it would appear that Dan Brown was accurate about a couple of things (I won't spoil it in case you're waiting to read it). Anyone else reading it? What's your opinion?

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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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Creative Bar Owners in India Build Maze to Skirt New Liquor Laws
June 20, 2017
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Facing a complicated legal maze, a bar in the southern Indian state of Kerala decided to construct a real one to stay in business, according to The Times of India. Aiswarya Bar, a watering hole that sits around 500 feet from a national highway, was threatened in 2016 after India's Supreme Court banned alcohol sales within 1640 feet of state and country-wide expressways to curb drunk driving. Instead of moving or ceasing operation, Aiswarya Bar's proprietors got creative: They used prefabricated concrete to construct a convoluted pathway outside the entrance, which more than tripled the distance from car to bar.

Aiswarya Bar's unorthodox solution technically adhered to the law, so members of the State Excise Administration—which regulates commodities including alcohol—initially seemed to accept the plan.

"We do [not] measure the aerial distance but only the walking distance," a representative told The Times of India. "However, they will be fined for altering the entrance."

Follow-up reports, though, indicate that the bar isn't in the clear quite yet. Other officials reportedly want to measure the distance between the bar and the highway, and not the length of the road to the bar itself.

Amid all the bureaucratic drama, Aiswarya Bar has gained global fame for both metaphorically and literally circumnavigating the law. But as a whole, liquor-serving establishments in India are facing tough times: As Quartz reports, the alcohol ban—which ordered bars, hotels, and pubs along highways to cancel their liquor licenses by April 1, 2017—has resulted in heavy financial losses, and the estimated loss of over 1 million jobs. Aiswarya Bar's owner, who until recently operated as many as nine local bars, is just one of many afflicted entrepreneurs.

Some state governments, which receive a large portion of their total revenue from liquor sales, are now attempting to downgrade the status of their state and national highways. To continue selling liquor in roadside establishments, they're rechristening thoroughfares as "urban roads," "district roads," and "local authority roads." So far, the jury's still out on whether Kerala—the notoriously heavy-drinking state in which Aiswarya Bar is located—will become one of them.

[h/t The Times of India]