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The History of Presidential Turkey Pardoning

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Bettmann/CORBIS

Each year before Thanksgiving, the President of the United States formally pardons a live turkey presented to him by the National Turkey Federation. It’s a tradition that’s seemingly been around forever, and while the NTF has been supplying the White House with holiday birds since the 1940s, the pardoning bit is actually a pretty new development.

A lot of people point to Harry Truman as pardoning the first turkey in 1947, but the record keepers at the Truman Library can’t find any “documents, speeches, newspaper clippings, photographs, or other contemporary records” tying Truman to the custom. What’s more, the first turkey Truman supposedly pardoned wasn't even for Thanksgiving — it was given to him at Christmas. The Truman family ate it.

Another origin story says that Abraham Lincoln interrupted a Cabinet meeting in 1863 to grant a turkey named Jack, which his son had befriended, an order of reprieve for “execution” in the kitchen. As with Truman, though, there’s no documentation supporting the story, and it may be just another Lincoln tall tale.

The first president after Truman to spare a turkey was John F. Kennedy. But JFK did not grant a formal “pardon” to the bird presented to him the week before Thanksgiving in 1963. He simply suggested the family “just keep him” and announced he would not eat the bird. ("It's our Thanksgiving present to him," Kennedy said.) According to a contemporary New York Times report, the bird was returned to a farm for breeding. Kennedy tragically didn't live to see Thanksgiving — he was assassinated on November 22.

Ronald Reagan spared a turkey named Charlie from the White House kitchen, but only joked about giving it a pardon as he tried to deflect questions about the Iran-Contra affair. Formalized turkey pardoning, it turns out, has only been around since 1989, when President George H.W. Bush looked at his turkey and said, “Let me assure this fine tom he will not end up on anyone's dinner table. Not this guy. He's been granted a presidential pardon as of right now, allowing him to live out his days on a farm not far from here.”

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Since 1989, the tradition has been cemented and the president has pardoned a turkey (and its alternate) each year.

Until 2004, the spared turkeys were sent to Kidwell Farm, a petting zoo at Frying Pan Park in Virginia, where they lived out the rest of their lives in the Turkey Barn. From 2005 to 2009, the turkeys went to either Disneyland in California or Disney World in Florida, where they served as honorary grand marshals in Disney's Thanksgiving Day Parade and then retired to Disneyland’s Big Thunder Ranch.

© Ron Sachs/CNP/Corbis

In 2010, Disney stopped taking pardoned turkeys and President Obama’s birds were sent to George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate in Virginia — which is where this year's turkeys will spend the holidays, too. The pardoning ceremony is scheduled for Wednesday in the Rose Garden, and the White House social media team really went overboard this year:

The turkey with the less-popular Twitter hashtag will be killed and eaten, right? No, according to the White House, "both turkeys travel to George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens where they will be on display for visitors during 'Christmas at Mount Vernon.' The turkeys will then travel to their permanent home at Morven Park's Turkey Hill, the historic turkey farm located at the home of former Virginia Governor Westmorland Davis in Leesburg, Virginia."

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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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