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Preserving the President: Abraham Lincoln, Grave Robbers, and an Excellent Embalmer

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President Lincoln's funeral train in Philidelphia near the start of its 13 day journey from Washington to Springfield. Photo courtesy of

After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, his body was taken from Washington, D.C., by train to be laid in a tomb in Springfield, Illinois. The funeral train carried the president, some 300 mourners, an honor guard, and the disinterred body of Lincoln’s son, Willie, which would be laid to rest near his father. The train made 11 stops along the way, loosely retracing the route Lincoln had taken to Washington for his first inauguration, so that his body could lay in state and the public could pay their respects.

The 1654-mile journey took 13 days, during which the body was viewed by hundreds of thousands of people. Perhaps one of the most important, and ghoulish, bits of logistics that had to be sorted out for the funeral was keeping the body preserved, and presentable, until it reached its destination. Funeral embalming was a relatively new development at that time, but had proven itself on the battlefields of the Civil War. Dr. Thomas Holmes, the "father of American embalming," claimed to have personally embalmed more than 4000 Union soldiers for shipment back home for burial, and had trained others to do the same work using his techniques.

Preservatives Added

The task of embalming Lincoln fell to Drs. Charles Brown and Harry Cattell, using a form of the arterial embalming method developed in Europe, where an artery was opened and the body flushed of blood and filled with a chemical preservative. In their variation on the procedure, Brown and Cattell drained Lincoln's blood through his jugular and then pumped in Brown’s patented embalming fluid through an incision in his thigh. They shaved Lincoln’s face, leaving only a tuft of hair on the chin, set his mouth in a slight smile, and dressed him in a suit.

Brown’s advertisements touted that the bodies he embalmed would “be kept in the most perfect and natural preservation,” a claim that would be put to the test on the funeral train. To keep the body in the condition that the embalmers had promised, Cattell even traveled with the funeral party, providing the president’s body with “touch-ups” along the way.

Protecting the President

A little more than 10 years after Lincoln was laid in the tomb, a group of counterfeiters attempted to steal his remains and hold them for ransom. As the grave robbers began to move the coffin, an undercover Secret Service agent that had infiltrated the gang called in police backup to chase them down and capture them.

This attempted theft of Lincoln’s body helped spur his son Robert’s decision to have the coffin buried in a concrete-encased vault during a renovation of the tomb in 1901. Before the burial, the question came up as to whether or not someone should open the coffin and view the remains. Rumors that the grave robbing was actually successful had circulated for years, and this would be the last chance to put them to rest.

The coffin was opened and 23 people inspected what lay in it. They all agreed it was the president and that he was in fine condition. His features were still recognizable and the wart on his cheek was still there. His chin whiskers remained and his hair was still thick (though his eyebrows had disappeared).

Brown and Cattell had more than made good on their promises. J. C. Thompson, one of the men who viewed the body 36 years after Lincoln had died, later said, “Anyone who had ever seen his pictures would have known it was him. His features had not decayed. He looked just like a statue of himself lying there."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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]