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10 Unexpected Duties Performed by the Secret Service

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Being a Secret Service agent isn't as action-packed as they make it seem in the movies. It's a lot of observation and surveillance, sure, but the President and his family have the power to ask their protection staff to do just about anything—including serving as a urinal. Yup... these 10 menial tasks are a long shot from car chases and running down would-be assassins.

1. Lost & Found

Calvin Coolidge made eight of his secret service people search for a lost boot once. It happened to be just as they were headed out the door to successor Herbert Hoover's inauguration; it nearly made them all late.

2. Workout Buddy

This wasn't the first odd request from Silent Cal. His chief form of exercise was riding an electric horse he kept in the White House; he often requested that his Secret Service agents join him in his workout.

3. Interior Designer

JFK allegedly made his secret service squad visit a gallery in D.C. to have pictures of himself framed—pictures of himself in unusual sexual positions with various women. The owner of the gallery came forward in the book The Dark Side of Camelot.

4. Scapegoat

Gerald Ford blamed his farts on his secret service people, conspicuously saying things like, "Jesus, was that you? Show some class!"

5. Bouncer

Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously kept his disability under wraps, always striving to downplay his physical ailments. As a result, his Secret Service agents found themselves serving as paparazzi bruisers—when they spotted photographers snapping pictures of FDR in a position they knew he wouldn't appreciate (being carried by other Secret Servicemen, for example), they confiscated the cameras or made sure they were knocked to the ground and "accidentally" destroyed.

6. Wingman

Presidents who used their Secret Service detail to keep their wives at bay when their mistresses were in town included FDR, LBJ, and JFK. Lest you think it's something about those initialed Presidents, we can probably assume Bill Clinton did the same thing.

7. Urinal

Lyndon B. Johnson once asked a Secret Serviceman to shield him while he peed outside, but that's not the strange part—LBJ apparently purposely peed on the agent's trouser leg. When the agent mentioned how gross that was, LBJ was unapologetic, apparently saying, "I know. That's my prerogative."

8. Gardener

We don't know for sure what "keep the landscape from interfering with security" means, but when this $12,000-a-year charge showed up on Nixon's service detail, the press jumped on it, alleging that taxpayer money was being used to make sure that Nixon's tulips were being watered regularly. Hmm.

9. Babysitter

Aiding and abetting underage drinkers surely isn't on the Secret Service job description, but that's exactly what they did in 2001 when the Bush twins, Barbara and Jenna used fake IDs to go out on the town in Austin, Texas, and order margaritas when they were just 19. Aware of what was happening, the Secret Service whisked the girls away before they could be arrested. However, they were later cited for the offense.

10. Bellhop

Jimmy Carter liked to ask his Secret Service detail to carry bags for him. They complained that being loaded down with his luggage seriously hindered their ability to quickly react if Carter should need unexpected help; the president eventually relented.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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