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A Brief History of the State of the Union

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President Obama is slated to let Congress (and the rest of us) know how the country's doing in the State of the Union address on Tuesday night. Here are the answers to a few questions that might come up when the address storms every channel of your television.

Why does the President give a State of the Union address to Congress every year?

The address can trace its roots back to the Constitution. Article II, Section 3, Clause 1 of the Constitution says that the President "shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient."

Isn't that a pretty vague order?

"From time to time" leaves the question of frequency open to interpretation, but George Washington helped cement the State of the Union as an annual event after he gave the first State of the Union address at Federal Hall in New York City in January 1790.

Since there wasn't much of a blueprint for Washington, he praised the 1st Congress' work and outlined a brief legislative plan for the upcoming year. In this way, Washington's address bore some resemblance to the one President Obama will give tonight. On the other hand, Washington's goals were a bit different from national health care; he wanted to work on the army, build post roads, and develop uniform systems of currency, weights, and measures.

What if a President didn't love public speaking?

You'll notice that the order from Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution doesn't say anything about a speech; the President just has to keep Congress informed of what's going on in the country. When Thomas Jefferson took office in 1801, he decided that the idea of showing up before Congress to deliver a grand address sounded like something a monarch would do, so he decided to bag the speech. Instead, he wrote down an annual message and sent it to Congress, where a clerk read it aloud to the assembled legislators.

Would a politician really skip a chance to give a big speech?

Apparently Presidents don't love giving long speeches any more than the rest of us do, because Jefferson's successors jumped on this new system. For over a century, every President opted to keep Congress informed through a written message rather than a spoken one; these messages were generally full of long, exhaustive administrative and budget reports rather than rousing political rhetoric.

Woodrow Wilson finally revived the old practice of delivering a speech in 1913. Even then, Presidents haven't always appeared to give a speech. Since the 1913 revival of the practice, 22 State of the Union reports have come in written form, most recently Reagan's 1989 report.

Who are all of the people crammed into the front of the House Chamber?

It's a big crowd for the State of the Union. In addition to the members of Congress, the President usually has the Justices of the Supreme Court, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his cabinet seated at the front of the audience.

Who won't be there?

At least one member of President Obama's cabinet. Since the Cold War, one member of the cabinet has holed up in an undisclosed secure location during big government gatherings like the State of the Union address and presidential inaugurations. This absent member is dubbed the "designated survivor." In the unlikely event that an attack or a disaster leads to the deaths of all of the assembled leaders, having a designated survivor hiding out somewhere safe maintains the line of presidential succession.

Since 2005 a few members of Congress have also stayed away from big events so there would be at least a tiny legislature remaining in the event of a disaster.

When did the State of the Union address become must-see TV?

LBJ-1965-SOTU

President Truman actually gave the first televised State of the Union in 1947, but it didn't become a primetime spectacle until 1965. Lyndon B. Johnson decided to give his address in the evening that year, while previous addresses had generally taken place during the day. At the time, LBJ was trying to sell Americans on his civil rights reforms and Great Society plans, so he decided to give the address at night in order to reach the widest possible audience. The trick worked, and it was the first State of the Union address to be televised during the evening.

Can a President opt out of giving a State of the Union address?

reagan-SOTU

Sort of. It doesn't really make a lot of sense for a newly inaugurated president to deliver a State of the Union address after only having been in office for a few days. Since Ronald Reagan's first term started in 1981, new presidents have opted to give a somewhat more specialized address—everyone but George H.W. Bush in 1989 has spoken mostly about the economy—to a joint session of Congress. Although these speeches are accompanied by the familiar pomp and circumstance, they're not technically State of the Union addresses.

Who started the parade of honored guests?

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Could such a Hollywood flourish have come from anyone other than Ronald Reagan? His 1982 address was the first to feature personal guests that the President publicly recognized over the course of his speech. Openly gay NBA veteran Jason Collins and two survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing were among 2014's guests. This year, be on the lookout for former Cuba prisoner Alan Gross and astronaut Scott Kelly.

Notable guests from past events include 12-year-old music prodigy Tyrone Ford (1986), baseball sluggers Sammy Sosa (1999) and Hank Aaron (2000), Baby Einstein founder Julie Aigner-Clark (2007), and NBA star Dikembe Mutombo (2007).

What's the story with the opposition party's response right after the address?

In 1966, television networks offered the Republican Party a half-hour slot for a rebuttal of LBJ's address. Senator Everett Dirksen and Representative Gerald Ford made counterarguments to Johnson's comments. Since 1976, the opposition's response has been slotted in directly behind the State of the Union. This year, Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa will deliver the Republican response.

Who gave the longest address in history?

According to the Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, Harry Truman takes that prize with a 1946 speech—over 25,000 words. (To give you an idea of how long that is, the average modern address is in the neighborhood of 5,000 words.) George Washington wins the award for brevity; his first address in 1790 was just 833 words long.

A version of this post originally appeared in 2010.

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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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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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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]

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