Original image

How To Get Yourself on a Postage Stamp

Original image

If you're like me, you probably take postage stamps for granted. I'll slap one on an outgoing bill or letter, but I don't usually give them much thought. However, there's a rigorous process that one has to go through to get his mug on a stamp, so we thought we might answer some questions for any aspiring postage subjects.

I want to be on a postage stamp! What do I have to do?

If it's a United States Postal Service stamp you're gunning for, we've got bad news. The first thing you have to do is croak. According to USPS rules, no living person can appear on U.S. postage. Don't expect to have your stamps immediately show up at your wake, either; another rule stipulates that people can't be honored by portrayal on a stamp until five years after their death. (This rule is relaxed slightly for recently deceased U.S. presidents, who can be honored on the first anniversary of their birthday following their deaths.)

If I'm notable enough, though, five years after my death I'll start showing up on letters, right?

Not necessarily. There are still a few more hurdles over which your candidacy must jump. First, the USPS usually only issues stamps on significant anniversaries of a subject's birth, so you might have to wait until what would have been your hundredth birthday. (The "significant" part of this equation is a bit up for grabs, though; the USPS sold over 124 million Elvis Presley stamps issued on what would have been the King's 68th birthday.)

Once you've found your way onto a single stamp, it's a long wait before you get another chance to provide postage. USPS rules state that no person can appear on a commemorative stamp if they have appeared on another stamp in the previous 50 years. On the plus side, that means we're only 33 years away from our next Elvis stamp!

What else might keep me off a stamp?

Not everyone is eligible for stamphood. According to the USPS, it won't issue a stamp to commemorate "individuals whose principal achievements are associated with religious undertakings or beliefs." Sorry, Parson.

Of course, these rules may be more flexible than the USPS is letting on. When the USPS announced its slate of commemorative stamps for 2010, one of them featured Mother Teresa. Atheist groups blasted the stamp for having religious underpinnings, but the USPS responded that the issue was more to honor Mother Teresa's humanitarian work than her religious beliefs. (A similar controversy arose in 1986 when the USPS honored orphanage founder and Catholic priest Father Edward Flanagan on a 4-cent stamp.) Despite the controversy, the Mother Teresa stamp is coming to a post office near you in August on what would have been her 100th birthday.

As citizens do we have any say on what ends up on stamps?

Do we ever! Since 1957 the Postmaster General has maintained the fairly obscure Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee. This group of 15 or so citizen advisors offers the USPS a "breadth of judgment and depth of experience in various areas that influence subject matter, character and beauty of postage stamps." The citizens on the committee are appointed by the Postmaster General and meet four times a year to discuss stamp proposals.

What citizens have served on this committee?

The committee members are leaders from all sorts of diverse fields, which means that the committee's roster often reads like a random assemblage of folks you'd never invite to the same dinner party. Past members include Academy Award winner Karl Malden, author James Michener, and basketball coach Digger Phelps.

Highlighter enthusiast Phelps actually served two terms on the committee from 1983 to 2006, and he wrote extensively about the behind-the-scenes machinations of the group in his memoir. According to Phelps, the committee received a deluge of up to 50,000 proposals a year and often felt pressure from members of Congress to approve certain stamps. Phelps wrote, "The pressure doesn't work; if anything it turns off the committee."

What luminaries are currently on the committee?

The biggest name is probably Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard professor who ended up having a "beer summit" at the White House last year. Other members include former American Film Institute head Jean Picker Firstenberg and Joan Mondale, wife of former presidential candidate Walter Mondale.

Has the committee ever let a controversial stamp slip through the gates?

Certain ill-advised issues have sparked firestorms of controversy. In fact, in 1994 a stamp nearly caused an international incident.

With the 50th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki approaching, the CSAC and the USPS made the decision to issue a stamp depicting a mushroom cloud with the caption "Atomic bombs hasten war's end, August 1945." The USPS defended the commemorative stamp by saying it sought to depict an important historical event without offering a judgment on the event itself.

As you can imagine, though, lots of people questioned the tastefulness of a stamp that depicted the deaths of thousands of civilians. Japan's Foreign Minister protested the issue, as did the mayor of Nagasaki, who called the stamp "heartless." The Japanese Embassy in Washington took its case to the State Department in hopes of canceling the stamp.

Eventually, the Japanese protests grew so loud that the Clinton White House had to lean on the USPS to quash the stamp. The USPS replaced the mushroom cloud stamp with one depicting Harry Truman announcing the end of the war.

Have there been any controversies that weren't quite that heavy?

As part of a tie-in with the movie The Land Before Time, the USPS issued a set of four dinosaur stamps depicting Tyrannosaurus, Stegosaurus, Pteradon, and Brontosaurus in 1989. Sounds harmless enough, right?

Not to scientists. First, it's spelled "Pterandon" with an "n," and the species in question is a pterosaur, not a dinosaur. Moreover, the name "Brontosaurus" was no longer used in the scientific community; Apatosaurus had taken its place. Scientists railed against the USPS' poor fact checking, and the USPS responded that it used the name "Brontosaurus" because it was more familiar to the public.

Famed paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote a very funny essay about this flap that's featured in his collection Bully for Brontosaurus, but a New York Times editorial had the best comment on the whole imbroglio: "But give the Postal Service due credit. The flak over its blunder has given "˜apatosaurus' more currency than it could ever get in a billion years of repetition in learned journals."

How long have these commemorative stamps been around?

The USPS issued the first commemorative stamps in 1893 to honor the World Columbian Exposition that was taking place in Chicago. Although the idea of commemorative stamps is a familiar and popular one now, it didn't thrill everyone at the time. It particularly irked Congress, which issued a joint resolution to denounce the "unnecessary" stamp issue.

Postmaster General John Wanamaker "“ the same Wanamaker who started a wildly successful chain of East Coast department stores that bore his name "“ stuck to his guns and thought the special stamps could make the postal service some serious cash. He was right; the stamps were almost immediately hot sellers, to the tune of two billion sold. Wanamaker himself spent $10,000 buying the $2 stamps in the hope that the idea of commemorative stamps would become valuable items for collectors.

Wanamaker's idea obviously worked. In 2006, the USPS estimated that the Elvis alone had sold over 120 million stamps that were never used for postage, which provided over $30 million in loot for the postal system's coffers.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

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