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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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