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Martin Van Buren Had a Really Nice Toilet

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It's December 5th, and we all know what that means: The time has come, once again, to celebrate Martin Van Buren's birthday.

In commemoration of the eighth U.S. president, who would have turned a ripe 230 years old today, his upstate New York hometown of Kinderhook is carrying out its annual wreath-laying ceremony at his gravesite. Which is right down the road from his retirement home, now a beautifully battered historic landmark preserved and cared for by the U.S. National Park Service.

Despite his administration's successful push in outlawing bigamy and legalizing divorce, the one-term president (whose nickname was "Little Magician") is hardly remembered for his policies. If anything, the five-foot, six-inch Van Buren is best known as the punchline in this week's adorable Google ad. But you wanna know the coolest thing about the pair of furry muttonchops that ran the nation from 1837 to 1841?

The man had one awesome toilet.

From Outhouse to In-House

During the birthday boy's reign as commander-in-chief, Van Buren purchased the country home, which he named Lindenwald, located just a couple hours away from Albany. His sons encouraged him to finish it out as a luxury spot where he could fish and go horseback riding after his hellish term in Washington. (The house would also become a social hub for political operatives from the state capital, and a pit stop on the way to and from New York City.)

When he lost his 1840 reelection bid in a landslide to war hero William Henry Harrison—Van Buren picked up only six states in the electoral college, and not even his home state, New York—the lame duck could then turn his attention to the Lindenwald estate, which was eventually expanded into 36 rooms including a wine cellar, six family bedrooms, one formal guest room, servants' quarters and one toilet.

Martin Van Buren's indoor toilet. Flush is the gold-colored circle with a knob on the left, fancy china toilet bowl in the middle, wooden cover for the bowl on the right. (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service)

As you might have guessed, this wasn't just any old toilet. Restored to what is believed to be its original appearance, Van Buren's throne is tucked away on the first floor in a closet-size room, part of a larger bathroom that accommodates the president's original six-foot long bathtub. The toilet bowl itself is made from fine china, set inside a giant frame made of wood. A 100-gallon water tank, connected to a pump in the basement kitchen, is installed above that frame. (It's worth noting that the servants quarters had their own indoor outhouse, and two gate houses on the property probably had outhouses.)

A killer innovation for its time, Van Buren introduced the whole town to the concept of the indoor toilet (most were accustomed to bearing the cold in an outhouse) and, according to Dawn Olson of the National Park Service, to the "novel idea to have running water and indoor plumbing in the 1850s."

"Kitchens were generally separate from the house, but times were beginning to change," Olson says. "There were other fairly wealthy people in the area. As a rule indoor plumbing was very rare unless you were in an urban area, New York City or Philadelphia. We hesitate to say [Lindenwald's] was the first indoor plumbing, because there's no proof of that."

Estate Living

Lindenwald, the 220-acre farm where Van Buren resided the last 21 years of his life, 1841-62. (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service)

The preferred annex for the Albany elite, Van Buren's residence would often host dinner and cocktail parties on Lindenwald's master's tab. In addition to the aforementioned wine cellar, the property maintained two fish ponds, a pear orchard, and an apple orchard. (Olson: "Most of those were picked to turn into something else.") Its staff consistently harvested potatoes and kept sheep, cows, and chickens on their working farm. The mansion even had a vegetable garden replete with lettuce, carrots, onions, and cabbage. Lots of cabbage.

But none of this was a bother. Because, despite those four long years at the White House, Van Buren committed himself to two more presidential campaigns, both managed (and failed) at his estate. So political and social hobnobbing became an integral part of Lindenwald in helping to maintain his post-presidential career. And, from the sound of it, that treasured toilet maybe wasn't so much an innovation as it was a necessity.

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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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