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25 Quick By-The-Numbers Facts about U.S. Ambassadors

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American diplomacy is as old as the country itself. In 1776, Benjamin Franklin traveled to Paris to serve as a commissioner on behalf of his newly declared country and solicit the support of the French for the American Revolution. Today, a primary function of a United States Ambassador is to act as a representative for the President of the United States and maintain good relations with the country in which they are posted. Typically ambassadors are either appointed as political favors or they are career diplomats from the Foreign Service. Here are 25 facts about the ambassadorial world, broken down by numbers.

1. The rank of “Ambassador” was first awarded by the United States in 1893. Before this, the highest title was “Minister.”

2. About 7 million visas are granted by U.S. embassies around the world each year.

3. The United States has diplomatic relations with 180 countries.

4. Current United States diplomatic missions: 265.

5. The State Department created the Foreign Service in 1924.

6. Six U.S. Presidents have served as Foreign Minister:

John Adams (UK, Netherlands), William Henry Harrison (Colombia), James Monroe (France, UK), John Quincy Adams (UK, Netherlands, Russia, Germany), Thomas Jefferson (France), and Martin van Buren (United Kingdom). (Pictures Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

7. U.S. Presidents who served as Ambassador to another country: 0

8. Five nations don't have U.S. ambassadorial exchanges: Bhutan, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and the Republic of China (Taiwan).

9. In 1966, Hungary and Bulgaria became the two most recent nations to get full-fledged American embassies.

10. There are currently 27 vacant ambassador posts.

11. There are 10 possible diplomatic ranks at each post as dictated by bilateral diplomacy: Ambassador, Chargé d’affaires, Minister, Minister-Counselor, Counselor, First Secretary, Second Secretary, Third Secretary, Attaché, Assistant Attaché

12. Only one person—the President—can nominate ambassadors ...

13. ... but he can't do it by himself: one body of government—the Senate—is needed to approve an ambassadorial appointment. (A President can make a recess appointment, but the Senate will still vote when they return to session and can revoke the appointment.)

14. One 2012 Republican primary candidate held the position of Ambassador:

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Jon Huntsman, Jr., who served as ambassador to Singapore and China.

15. Years of college required to become a U.S. Ambassador: 0

16. Publicly listed State Department salary for senior positions: $130,000 – $160,000

17. Approximate percentage of “political” appointees vs. career diplomats: 25% / 75%

18. The youngest American to lead a diplomatic mission was 24 year old Edward Rumsey Wing, who became Minister to Ecuador in 1869.

19. The shortest term served by an American ambassador was approximately 16 days. In 1976, Ambassador Francis E. Meloy Jr. was assassinated en route to presenting his credentials to the President of Lebanon.

20. Former child actress Shirley Temple served as a U.S. Ambassador to two countries: Ghana and Czechoslovakia.

Villa Petschek, in Prague, Czech Republic, where Shirley Temple Black lived as Ambassador. Photo Courtesy of

21. Diplomatic immunity laws were created in 1961 by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

22. Traffic fines Egyptian diplomats owed New York City as of 2007: $1.9 million.

23. Five U.S. Ambassadors were slain on the job by acts of terrorism.

24. Two American embassy employees have used diplomatic immunity to escape possible murder charges. In 1977, a U.S. diplomat was involved in a traffic accident in Canberra that resulted in the death of an Australian construction worker. He was allowed to return home without a trial or any prosecution.

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In January 2011, Raymond Allen Davis was an employee of the CIA working in Lahore, Pakistan. Allegedly as self-defense, he shot and killed 2 young Pakistani men. To the outrage of Pakistan, the U.S. State Department invoked diplomatic immunity as he was technically an employee of the embassy. Davis returned to the U.S. in February that year, absolved of charges.

25. Number of times American diplomats have claimed immunity: Unknown—the State Department refuses to release that information.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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