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5 Interesting Tributes to Ronald Reagan

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Ronald Reagan on Mount Rushmore? Absolutely, if Grover Norquist has his way. As Chairman of the Reagan Legacy Project, Norquist believes that all 50 states should have a landmark of some kind named after the Gipper. At least 27 states already have something – streets, elementary schools, post offices, even an airport. But some of the things named in honor of the 40th President aren’t so typical. Check out five of the more unusual honors:

The Ronald Reagan Bust at McDonald’s in Northport, Alabama.
It’s not the bust that’s odd; it’s the location. On October 15, 1984, President Reagan gave a speech at the University of Alabama. He and his crew decided to stop off for a couple of burgers to show that he was just like everyone else. Apparently it was the first time the two Ronalds had collided, because the president had no idea what to order. He ended up going with a classic Big Mac, fries and a sweet tea. The next time you’re in Northport, be sure to check out the little shrine labeled “President Reagan ate here” that commemorates the event – there’s a photo of Reagan chowing down accompanied by a bronze bust.

The Ronald Reagan Suite at the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
The Reagan Suite, where he actually stayed, is one of the smallest suites available. For real luxury, you’ll want the Al Capone Suite or the Smarty Jones Suite. I wonder if Reagan would be offended that he’s playing second banana to a racehorse? And yes, Reagan did actually stay there - as did President Clinton.

The Ronald Reagan Suite at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles.
Now this is a suite befitting of a president – in fact, it’s the entire 32nd floor of the historic hotel. And it’s no wonder they named it after him – Reagan stayed here so much during his presidency that it was nicknamed “the Western White House.” He even accepted the presidential nomination at the Century Plaza. That's him throwing a paper airplane off the balcony during one of his many stays there.

Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, Marshall Islands.
Yep, that would be exactly what it sounds like: 750,000 square miles of space for testing missiles. Surprisingly, it’s not the only missile site named after Reagan - there’s another one called the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile Site in Cooperstown, N.D. The latter is now a historic site that documents the role of the North Dakota missile site during the Cold War.

Ronald Reagan Pub, once located in Ballyporeen, South Tipperary, Ireland.
The pub was originally named to honor Reagan’s 1984 trip to Ballyporeen, where his paternal great-grandfather was baptized in 1829. Though the pub shuttered its doors in Ballyporeen in 2004, you can still visit: the fine eating and drinking establishment has since been relocated to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. As far as I can tell, this makes it one of the only Presidential Libraries that includes a pub. And hey, not only can you grab lunch and a pint at the Reagan Pub, you can also purchase glasses and bottle openers with the Reagan family crest on it.

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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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May 23, 2017
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