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5 Things You Didn't Know About Maya Lin

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Maya Ying Lin, the Yale architecture student who submitted the winning design for the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, holds a scale model of her design on May 6, 1981. © Bettmann/CORBIS

Sculptor and architect Maya Lin is best known for her design of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, D.C., but modern viewers may not know about her rise to prominence and the subsequent controversy. Let’s take a look at five interesting facts about the architect from Athens, Ohio.

1. She Had an Early Start

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Lin’s design has become so celebrated that it’s easy to forget how young she was when she first proposed it. The national contest to design a Vietnam memorial drew 1,421 entries, including such oddball suggestions as a steel soldier’s helmet the size of a house, but in the end, Lin’s granite wall won the competition. She wasn’t a seasoned architect and sculptor, though; when Lin won she was still a 21-year-old senior at Yale.

Although the victory obviously kick-started Lin’s career, it also led to some awkward situations. Lin had originally designed the monument as a project for a class on funerary architecture with Professor Andrus Burr. Burr had submitted his own design in the memorial competition but lost out to Lin. It's often reported that Burr gave Lin's design a B+, but the professor claims she received an A (but she received a B+ for his course).

2. She Had Her Share of Critics

Lin had to weather harsh criticism from a variety of sources. The National Review denounced Lin’s project as “Orwellian glop.” Vietnam veterans decried it as a “black gash of shame.” And those were the nicer critiques. Tom Wolfe and Peter Schlafly witheringly dubbed it “a tribute to Jane Fonda.” While Lin had intended for the wall’s simplicity to prompt introspection and honor for the fallen soldiers, many critics just thought it was bleak or strange, particularly because the soldiers’ names were listed chronologically rather than alphabetically.

Ross Perot might have been Lin’s most visible opponent, though. The tycoon and future presidential candidate had put up $160,000 to help fund the design competition, but he dismissed the winning design as “something for New York intellectuals.” Lin later told The New Yorker that Perot even visited her office and asked, “Doncha just think they need a parade?” Lin responded, “Well, they really need more than a parade.”

3. But She Had One Very Polite Ally

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As veterans’ groups and Perot were publicly agitating for Lin’s design to either be scrapped or heavily modified, Lin found an unlikely advocate: Miss Manners. Judith Martin, better known to the world as the etiquette columnist, took Lin under her wing during the architect’s tumultuous time in Washington as she tried to get the memorial built. Martin, along with Washington Post architecture critic Wolf von Eckardt, helped Lin get some positive publicity to sway attitudes in favor of her project.

4. Her Critics Ended Up Eating Crow

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Although Lin’s design was controversial when it was in the planning stages, once it was built a number of her more outspoken critics changed their stances. Lin later told PBS that the critic who had penned the “Orwellian glop” insult wrote her a very nice letter to apologize. Lin recounted that the critic wrote, “I'm really sorry. I made a mistake."

In the end, Lin took all of the controversy in stride. In the same PBS interview she said the only people she ended up really thinking less of because of the whole fracas were Ross Perot and Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt, who held up the memorial’s building permits in an attempt to change the design.

5. The Wall Wasn’t Her Only Controversial Win

For a while, Lin seemingly couldn’t escape controversy no matter how hard she tried. In 1994, documentary filmmaker Freida Lee Mock won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for her film Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision. Nice honor for Lin as the film’s subject, right? Not so much. Turns out that Lin was part of another award-winning project that drew considerable fire.

While most critics agreed that the film about Lin was a perfectly good documentary, they couldn’t understand why Hoop Dreams, which most viewers thought was a vastly superior film, couldn’t even garner a lousy nomination for the Oscar. After similarly praised docs like The Thin Blue Line and Roger & Me had suffered the same slight, many insiders began agitating for a new way to nominate documentaries. Since Mock had formerly chaired the Academy’s documentary committee, conspiracy theorists leveled charges of cronyism against the award.

The real problem, though, was that the criteria for garnering a nomination were a bit bizarre. Since the Academy only had 47 people on its documentary nomination committee – as opposed to 400-plus on its foreign film committee – it was incredibly difficult to screen every potential nominee. While most categories required that films be shown for at least a week in a theatrical run in Los Angeles, best doc nominees could only be drawn from a list of films that had appeared at a select handful of festivals. While this system helped cut the undermanned committee’s workload, it led to head-scratching omissions from the final lists of nominees.

The Lin documentary’s controversial win (and Hoop Dreams’ snub) ended up being the last straw for documentary filmmakers. Within a year the Academy added a second documentary review committee in New York and began requiring a weeklong theatrical run for eligibility in the category.

If there's someone you'd like to see profiled in a future edition of '5 Things You Didn't Know About...,' leave us a comment. You can read the previous installments here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Library of Congress
10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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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.