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A Brief History of Presidential Memoirs

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Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s memoir, A Journey, is sparking all sorts of picketing and protesting around the U.K., so we thought it might be a good time to take a look at a few presidential memoirs from this side of the pond. Here are a few things you might not have known about former presidents’ literary output.

Best Choice of (Possible) Ghostwriter

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Ulysses S. Grant should have been on sound financial footing when he finished his second term in 1877. He was arguably the world’s most famous war hero, and he had been in the White House for eight years. In reality, though, his finances were anything but stable. Following a two-year trip around the world and a disastrous investment with a swindling banking partner, Grant found himself on the verge of bankruptcy; he even had to sell his Civil War mementos to pay off debts.

He still had access to that great presidential cash cow, the memoir, though. Mark Twain approached Grant about publishing the war hero’s memoirs with a plum deal that would give Grant 75% of the profits as royalties. Cash-strapped Grant had little choice but to accept Twain’s offer, and the Civil War-focused Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant hit stores in 1885.

Grant’s memoirs were an instant runaway hit. Twain’s company made the clever choice of employing former Union soldiers in full uniform as salesmen, and the book became one of the best sellers of the 19th century. Today, the book is considered by many to be the best presidential memoir ever written, but there’s some controversy over who actually did the bulk of the writing. Twain always claimed that he had only made slight edits to Grant’s text, but the prose was so strong that many suspected Twain himself had ghostwritten the book.

Sadly, Grant didn’t get to see the success of his book; he died shortly after its completion. But his widow Julia banked over $400,000 in royalties from the memoir.

Worst Financial Windfall

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While today’s presidents are financially set for life from publishing and consulting gigs when they leave the Oval Office, just 57 years ago that wasn’t the case.

When Harry Truman’s term ended in 1953, he didn’t have any savings to speak of, and he felt taking a corporate job would cheapen the presidency. His only income was a $112-a-month pension from his days in the Army.

Truman decided that the best way to drum up some cash was to sell his memoirs, for which he got a $670,000 advance. By the time he paid taxes and his assistants, though, Truman only netted a few grand on the two-volume work. Eventually his financial straits grew so dire that Congress passed the Former Presidents Act in 1958 to guarantee annual pensions of $25,000 to former presidents.

Best Use of Revisionist History

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History has judged James Buchanan pretty harshly; most scholars rank him among the worst presidents we’ve ever had. You know who was a bit more sympathetic in his appraisal of the failed Buchanan administration, though? James Buchanan. In 1866 Buchanan published the first-ever presidential memoir, the magnificently titled Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of Rebellion.

In his book, Buchanan tried to set the record straight about his presidency. By the time Buchanan’s memoir came out, the Civil War had ended and Abraham Lincoln had become a national icon, so Buchanan attempted to liken his own policies to Honest Abe’s. Sure, Buchanan had opposed abolitionists and was considered to be a doughface—a Northerner with Southern sympathies—but in his mind, he was just like Lincoln and felt history would someday set the record straight. Unfortunately for Mr. Buchanan, it didn’t.

Most Honest Use of a Ghostwriter

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Ronald Reagan was quick with a quip, and he dropped one of his best one-liners at the release of his 1990 memoir An American Life. Publisher Simon & Schuster held a press conference for the release of the book, which Reagan had supposedly penned “with the editorial assistance of Robert Lindsey." In truth, it sounds like Lindsey may have received only the slightest assistance from Reagan. The Gipper joked at the press conference, “I hear it's a terrific book! One of these days I'm going to read it myself.”

Worst Sales Loss at the Hands of a Spouse

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Poor Gerald Ford just couldn’t win any respect. When his memoir A Time to Heal: The Autobiography of Gerald R. Ford came out in 1979, his wife, Betty, also had a memoir on the stands, The Times of My Life. Betty gave her husband a t-shirt that read “Bet My Book Outsells Yours” for his birthday. To make the crummy gift even worse, she was right. At least Ford was in good company; Nancy Reagan’s memoirs also outsold her husband’s.

Quickest Read

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Calvin Coolidge earned the nickname “Silent Cal” for being famously taciturn, and his memoirs weren’t uncharacteristically verbose. Coolidge takes the prize for the shortest presidential memoir—The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge comes in at a tight-lipped 247 pages.

Biggest Advance

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Bill Clinton got an astounding $15 million advance from Knopf for his 900-page behemoth of a memoir My Life. When Clinton signed the deal, publishing analysts figured the book would have to sell upwards of 800,000 hardcover copies just to break even, but Knopf aggressively ordered a presidential-record-breaking first run of 1.5 million copies.

To give you a sense of perspective, Richard Nixon’s memoirs sold 330,000 and were considered a huge hit; to justify this advance, Bubba was going to have to really move some books. But as of 2008, Clinton had not just surpassed that monstrous advance; he had pocketed nearly $30 million from sales of My Life and his follow-up, Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World. Hilary wasn’t doing so badly for herself in the publishing game, either. Her book Living History made her more than $10 million.

Longest Takedown of FDR

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Like Buchanan, Herbert Hoover doesn’t get much love from historians, but he certainly stood up for himself. After leaving office in 1933 after what’s generally agreed was a fairly disastrous stint, Hoover needed 18 years to crank out the first tome of his mammoth three-volume memoir. His main goal? Explaining why his presidency wasn’t really a failure and bashing the policies of his successor, Franklin Roosevelt.

Among Hoover’s most memorable smears of FDR: “The effort to crossbreed some features of Fascism and Socialism with our American free system speedily developed in the Roosevelt administration." Take that, New Deal!

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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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.