Original image

10 Postmasters General Who Weren't Boring

Original image

If pressed, most people probably couldn't remember the name of any of the United States' Postmasters General (yes, we're going with "Postmasters General"). The job just isn't all that glamorous and, quite frankly, sounds a little boring. It might not be an A-List position, but that doesn't mean Postmasters have led D-List lives. Here are 10 surprising stories that illustrate how wild and crazy—or brilliant and powerful—the highest-ranking mailman in the country can be.

1. Charles Wickliffe (1840 – 1845)

After being stabbed in the chest by a madman (luckily the knife bounced off his sternum, preventing any serious injury), Wickliffe traveled to the Republic of Texas on a secret mission for President John Tyler. He was sent to convince the leaders of Texas to invade Mexico. If the invasion was a success, America could then negotiate with Mexico for the annexation of the land. Sadly, the powers of the Postmaster were not enough to immediately send the Texans to war, but his visit did help drum up support for annexation.

2. Aaron Brown (1857 – 1859)

Shortly after the Mexican-American War began in 1846, then-Tennessee Governor Brown, asked his constituents for 2,600 volunteers to help fight in the conflict. When 30,000 men answered his call, the “Volunteer State” received its famous nickname. But that wasn't the end of Brown's influence in American history. He was also one of the members of the Nashville Convention of 1850, where many Southern states first got together to debate action against the U.S. Government over the issue of slavery, including the possibility of secession. And, well, we all know how that turned out.

3. Joseph Holt (1859 – 1861)

Holt started his political career as the Commissioner of Patents and was appointed Postmaster General two years later. When the Civil War broke out, the U.S. Government saw many resignations and shuffling of positions, so Holt was promoted first to Secretary of War and later to Judge Advocate General of the Army. Holt held this position when President Lincoln was assassinated, meaning he presided over the trial of the accused conspirators. During the trial, Holt was personally accused of withholding evidence, and of forcing the execution of conspirator Mary Surratt before her sentence could be officially reduced to life in prison.

4. John Wanamaker (1889 – 1893)

Before he became Postmaster, John Wanamaker was the Sam Walton of his day. He owned many large businesses where he sold clothing and household items, considered by many to be the first department stores. He also revolutionized marketing by offering written guarantees, fixed pricing, and a return policy. The spectacle of his Wanamaker's stores made them tourist attractions as well as shopping destinations, much like the Mall of America is today. Wannamaker's was the first department store with electric lights, the first store with a telephone, the first store with pneumatic tubes for sending documents between departments, and the first store with a restaurant inside. He was also a pretty great guy to work for—he was an advocate for employee benefits, some of which we don't even find today, like free healthcare, educational assistance, pensions, and profit-sharing.

5. George Cortelyou (1905 – 1907)

Before George Cortelyou came along, the media and the Oval Office were barely on speaking terms. Just prior to becoming Postmaster General, Cortelyou revolutionized the relationship between the two by providing reporters with room to work in the White House, briefed journalists on political news, and gave President Teddy Roosevelt clippings from newspapers in an effort to use the media to gauge public opinion. It's nearly impossible to imagine our world today without his contribution.

6. George von Lengerke Meyer (1907 – 1909)

After serving as Postmaster General, Meyer moved on to become Secretary of the Navy. It was under his leadership that the U.S. Navy began experimenting with aircraft, including the successful take-off and landing of airplanes from Navy warships in 1910 and 1911. These feasibility tests led to the modern aircraft carrier.

7. Will Hays (1921 – 1922)

Hays' tenure as Postmaster General only lasted one year before he left to become the first President of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), the forefather of the modern Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The organization was founded to clean up Hollywood's image after the trial of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, in which Arbuckle was accused, and later found innocent, of raping and murdering a woman in his home. Hays was brought in to “clean up the pictures” because he was a Presbyterian deacon and former chairman of the Republican Party. In 1930, he implemented the “Hays Code,” which forced studios to remove any potentially offensive material from their films and seriously dampened artistic expression in film until 1960, when the current age-based movie ratings system was created.

8. Arthur Summerfield (1953 – 1961)

One of the longest-serving Postmasters General, Summerfield made his mark on the world as the man behind the U.S. Postal Service's bizarre idea of “rocket mail” - a scheme that would use missiles jam-packed with letters as a means of delivering the mail. The one and only successful use of rocket mail occurred on June 8, 1959, when a Regulus cruise missile was launched from the USS Barbero and landed at the Naval Auxiliary Air Station in Mayport, Florida. The missile landed safely with assistance from a parachute and the 3000 special edition postcards inside were delivered to their addressees, including President Eisenhower and other prominent politicians. The rocket mail project was abandoned, though, when it was determined that, no matter how cool it might have been, it was not a cost-effective method of delivering the mail.

9. Larry O'Brien (1968 – 1969)

O'Brien's career as top mailman might have been brief, but his influence on American politics has been long-standing. His political career began in 1952 when John F. Kennedy appointed O'Brien as head of the young statesman's U.S. Senate campaign. Later, JFK would use O'Brien as the head of his Presidential campaign, helping many overlook Kennedy's Catholic upbringing as a hurdle to the White House. After his stint as Postmaster General, O'Brien became the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and it was his office at the Watergate Hotel and Office Building that was broken-into in 1972 by “burglars” looking for an advantage in the upcoming Presidential election.

10. Anthony Frank (1988 – 1992)

While serving as Postmaster General, Frank made a guest appearance during the final episode of the seventh season of Murder She Wrote in May 1991. He played opposite star Angela Lansbury as – what else? - her mailman. In the scene, he delivers a package to sleuthmaster Fletcher, played by Lansbury, and informs her she owes him 43 cents because the person who sent her the package must not have known about the new postage rates. A subtle reminder for the viewing audience at home, perhaps? He was listed in the credits as “Postmaster General Anthony Frank as The Mailman.”

Today is October 10, 2010—10.10.10! To celebrate, we've got all our writers working on 10 lists, which we'll be posting throughout the day and night. To see all the lists we've published so far, click here.

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
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]