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5 Things You Didn't Know About Margaret Thatcher

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Margaret Thatcher was the tough-talking Conservative face of British politics throughout the 1980s. You may know about her policies, but how well do you know the woman who was nicknamed "The Iron Lady"?

1. She Started Out as a Chemist

In 1943, an 18-year-old Margaret Roberts headed to Oxford on a scholarship and began studying natural sciences. The future prime minister specialized in chemistry, and she was particularly interested in crystallography. She had good teachers, too. Her tutor, Dorothy Hodgkin, would go on to win the Nobel Prize in 1964 for her work in x-ray crystallography.

After earning a postgraduate BSc degree and an MA, Margaret Roberts took a research chemist job with BX Plastics in Essex. However, chemistry quickly took a back seat to politics. When she was in her mid-twenties, she twice ran as the Conservative candidate for the Parliament seat of the Labour stronghold of Dartford. Although she lost both times, she gained a great deal of publicity as the country's youngest female candidate, and her political career started to gain steam.

2. Her Voice Didn't Come Easy

Thatcher's resonant voice may be memorable, but it wasn't exactly natural. Her rise from Member of Parliament to 10 Downing Street might not have happened if she'd maintained her original pipes. Thatcher felt her natural speaking voice was too high to be truly authoritative, so she worked with a voice coach from the National Theater to lower it. After intensive training, Thatcher lowered her pitch by a full 46 hertz, which put her voice at the halfway point between the typical male and female vocal ranges.

3. She Didn't Need Any "Karate Ladies"

thatcher-timeIn 1979, Thatcher attended an economic summit in Japan. She was still a fairly new prime minister when she headed to Tokyo, and her hosts were a bit apprehensive about how a female PM would be received. To ensure Thatcher's safety, they came up with a novel plan: they would offer her a detail of 20 "karate ladies" for protection.

There was only one hitch in this bizarre plan: Thatcher wanted no part of it. Recently released records quote Thatcher's cabinet secretary Sir John Hunt as saying, "Mrs. Thatcher will attend the summit as Prime Minister and not as a woman per se"¦the Prime Minister would like to be treated in exactly the same manner as the other visiting Heads of Delegation...If other delegation leaders, for example, are each being assigned 20 karate gentlemen, the Prime Minister would have no objection to this; but she does not wish to be singled out."

4. Her Husband Was a Bit of a Character

denis-thatThis one's no surprise to British readers, as the domestic press had a field day with Denis Thatcher and depicted him as the U.K.'s more sophisticated answer Billy Carter. For his part, Denis offered this bit of advice on dealing with the press: "'Avoid telling them to sod off. It makes them cross.''

Denis never gave interviews and rarely made public speeches, but when he did, they had a tendency to end poorly. In 1979, he decried the effect the sporting boycott of apartheid-era South Africa was having on English rugby, saying, "We are a free people, playing an amateur game, and we have the right to play where the hell we like." The remark understandably caused a bit of a furor.

During Margaret's term in office, Denis actually played to the public's perception of him as a heavy-smoking golf nut with a penchant for tippling, even referring to himself as "the most shadowy husband of all time." However, Margaret wrote in her autobiography that her husband was "a fund of shrewd advice and penetrating comment. And he very sensibly saved these for me rather than the outside world.''

In 1990 he was made a baronet and became Sir Denis, and he accepted the honor with his usual good humor, saying, 'Thanks. But more important than that, I have just been elected a member of Sunningdale golf club.''

5. Her Son Isn't Quite as Diplomatic

Although she was known for her tough talk, Thatcher understood the benefits of using diplomacy and the political process to prompt change. Her son Mark, on the other hand, may not be quite as easygoing. He ran into trouble for his part in a 2004 coup d'etat attempt in Equatorial Guinea. The convoluted scheme involved a mercenary attack to overthrow President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and replace him with exiled politician Severo Moto. Financing allegedly came from British backers who wanted to get at Equatorial Guinea's reserves of oil and natural gas.

thatchersSir Mark Thatcher gave the mercenary plot a little over $250,000 to charter various helicopters. In 2005, he plead guilty to breaking anti-mercenary laws in a South African court and received a four-year suspended sentence a $500,000 fine. Sir Mark has maintained that he thought he was funding the helicopters for a mining project, not a mercenary-led coup, but the guilty plea has haunted him. In 2005, the U.S. rejected his application for a visa even though his American wife (they have since divorced) and their children were living in the States.

Sir Mark's twin sister, Carol, made news of her own in 2005. She won the British version of I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here by sticking out two weeks in the Australian jungle. The Guardian described Carol as "jaunty, decent, self-deprecating and, when she remembers to brush her hair, oddly sexy."

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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