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From NASCAR Drivers to William Faulkner: A Brief History of Snubbing the President

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Four out of twelve NASCAR drivers who were invited to meet President Obama at the White House this evening have declined to attend, citing scheduling conflicts—and sparking a nationwide gossip-fest. Refusing an invitation to visit the most powerful man in the world at his giant white mansion in the middle of the nation’s capital is, after all, not the same thing as, you know, missing your second cousin’s garden party. Saying “no” to the President is widely considered a major snub, a political rebuff and, depending on who you are, an insult of international proportions.

The thing is, it’s happened way more often than you’d think.

It's a Political Protest

Some honored invitees, like Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Lowell, have refused to visit the White House as a gesture of political protest. In Lowell’s case, he wrote a letter to then-President Lyndon Johnson explaining that he deeply disagreed with the president’s Cold War foreign policy: “We are in danger of imperceptibly becoming an explosive and suddenly chauvinistic nation, and we may even be drifting on our way to the last nuclear ruin,” he wrote.

Winners of the National Design Awards—the Oscars of the design world—pulled a similar stunt in 2006, refusing an invitation to attend an awards breakfast at the White House on the grounds that “the administration of George W. Bush has used the mass communications of words and images in ways that have seriously harmed the political discourse in America,” according to a public letter.

It's Just Too Far

Other illustrious would-be guests have refused to visit the president’s home for somewhat hazier reasons. Take for example Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner, who refused a dinner invitation at the Kennedy White House saying, “Why that’s a hundred miles away,” according to an interview in LIFE magazine. “That’s a long way to go just to eat.”

Decades earlier, President Calvin Coolidge’s father refused a direct invitation to come to the White House, but not for any scandalous reason. In 1923, after the premature death of President Warren Harding, the elder Coolridge swore-in President Coolidge at his Vermont farmhouse, and then sent his son packing to D.C. When the president asked his father to come with him, he refused: “There’ll be a funeral down there,” he said, according to the New York Times. “I think that my place is here to take care of the farm.”

Hollywood luminary Angelia Jolie and operatic reality TV star Susan Boyle both reportedly refused invitations to Obama’s White House this year for unspecified reasons. According to gossip rags, Jolie was saving herself for “more important” things, while Boyle was “too nervous” to meet the president.

It's Just Politics

The most popular reason for snubbing a White House invitation is, of course, a matter of straight politics. In 1982, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s son—no friend of Reagan’s policies—refused to attend a White House function in honor of his father, saying he was “tied up” all day.

A few years later, Senator Jesse Helms also snubbed Reagan’s White House, saying he didn’t want to attend a dinner that would require him to “socialize” with Mikhail Gorbachev.

More recently, Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner has set the modern bar for White House snubs. In the last year, Boehner has refused to attend three different functions at Obama’s pad, including a bipartisan service for Representative Gabrielle Giffords and a fancy state dinner for Chinese president Hu Jintao.

© Bettmann/CORBIS

But perhaps that’s nothing compared to former-President Herbert Hoover's no-show at President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration. According to news reports, Hoover’s plane circled D.C. a few times and then gave up, citing weather issues, and flew to Miami instead. The former president whipped off a note to Kennedy—“I made a hard try to attend your inauguration”—and then winged off on an impromptu fishing vacation in the Florida Keys.

If Kennedy was insulted by Hoover’s snub, he could have looked for advice to Abraham Lincoln, who was an expert in the matter. A hundred years earlier, during the Civil War, Union General George McClellan didn’t exactly refuse to attend a White House function (Lincoln didn’t live at the White House for much of the Civil War), but did one worse: he refused to meet the President himself, who had been waiting in the general’s parlor for more than an hour. According to the story, McClellan got home, went directly upstairs without greeting Lincoln, and told his servant to tell the President of the United States he’d gone to bed. Lincoln, who McClellan later called a “well-meaning baboon,” shrugged off the insult, saying “better at this time not to be making points of etiquette and personal dignity.”

It's Gotten Ugly

As for those NASCAR drivers, their choice to decline a White House function tonight in their honor has precedent. Well, kind of. Nearly two decades ago, a group of golfers representing the U.S. in the international Ryder Cup threatened to boycott an event in their honor at Clinton’s White House. The media, which got itself into a tizzy over the threatened snub, quoted the golfers saying all manner of nasty things about the Democratic agenda, including one celebrated player in particular who reportedly called the president a “draft-dodging baby-killer.”

Unlike the NASCAR drivers, all the golfers eventually agreed to show up at the White House, at which point everyone smiled, sipped drinks and talked about anything but politics.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Library of Congress
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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.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

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.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

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.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

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.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

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.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

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.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

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.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

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.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

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.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

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.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

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.

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