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Conversation Starters for That John Quincy Adams Birthday Bash You're Probably Throwing

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Hulton Archive/

Next week (July 11) is John Quincy Adams' birthday! While the idea of celebrating the 245th birthday of some dead guy with killer muttonchops surely appeals to any flosser, your guests might feel weird attending a party in honor of a president they know nothing about. But a skilled host can diffuse the awkwardness with these conversation starters. Feed these lines to guests and they’ll party like it’s 1799.

Have you been to the bathroom yet?

You simply can’t have a John Quincy Adams party without an alligator in the bathroom. The president had a pet gator, which was gifted to him by the Marquis de Lafayette. He kept it in a tub in the East Room, claiming that he enjoyed watching “the spectacle of guests fleeing from the room in terror.” If you’re looking for cheap entertainment, stock the tub with an inflatable gator (or splurge on a real one). Then sit back and enjoy the show.

I hear the Potomac’s lovely this time of year.

John Quincy Adams got his exercise by taking a daily dip in the Potomac . . . naked. Every morning at 5:00 a.m., the president would walk to the river, strip down, and go for a swim. But as with any intense exercise, skinny-dipping carries its risks. When Adams refused an interview with reporter Ann Royall, she hiked down to the river while he was swimming, gathered his clothes, and sat on them until he agreed to talk. Adams eventually cooperated, making him the first president (naked or clothed) to grant an interview with a female journalist.

Care for a game of billiards?

If the conversation’s falling flat, pool is always a reliable fallback. Adams adored the game and installed a billiards table in the White House shortly after becoming president. The new addition quickly became a subject of controversy when Adams billed the government with the $61 tab (which he later reimbursed). Nonetheless, political enemies charged that the pool table symbolized Adams’s aristocratic taste and promoted gambling.

So, Florida. That place is awesome, right?

Lots of people love the Sunshine State. But few take the time to thank John Quincy Adams while sunbathing on the steamy beaches. As Secretary of State, Adams negotiated the Adams-Onis Treaty, which allowed the U.S. to purchase Florida and set a new boundary between the U.S. and New Spain. That’s right – Disney World might not have been built if it weren’t for the man of the hour.

How about that election? Pretty dirty, huh?

While Americans decry the ugly effects of partisanism, the truth is that politics used to be a lot dirtier. The election of 1828 – when incumbent John Quincy Adams got crushed by longtime rival Andrew Jackson - is famous for the mudslinging tactics employed by both sides. Adams said Jackson was too dumb to be president, claiming that he spelled Europe “Urope.” He also hurled insults at Jackson’s wife, calling her a “dirty black wench” for getting together with Jackson before divorcing her first husband. Jackson retorted by calling Adams a pimp, claiming that he had once procured an American girl for sexual services for the czar while serving as an ambassador to Russia. Makes Obama and Romney seem downright chummy.

On a scale from 1 to 10, how awful would it be to be president?

John Quincy Adams might have said 11. He once stated, “The four most miserable years of my life were my four years in the presidency.” But even if he hated being commander-in-chief, Adams couldn’t bear to be out of the political loop for too long. After finishing his term as president, Adams served 18 more years in the House of Representatives, where he campaigned against further extension of slavery. In fact, he died shortly after suffering a stroke on the house floor.

Don’t you hate making small talk at parties?

Although Adams was nicknamed “Old Eloquent” for his unparalleled public speaking ability, he couldn’t make small talk to save his life. Aware of his own social awkwardness, Adams once wrote in his diary, “I went out this evening in search of conversation, an art of which I never had an adequate idea. Long as I have lived in the world, I never have thought of conversation as a school in which something was to be learned. I never knew how to make, control, or to change it.”

So, if all else fails and the party gets really awkward, encourage your guests to make small talk about how much they hate small talk. Because small talk is just the worst, right?

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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:

501069-OpeningCeremony3.jpg

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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