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10 U.S. Cabinet Departments that were Renamed or No Longer Exist

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After George Washington took office, he assembled a Presidential Cabinet that had just four positions: Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph. Since then, the Cabinet has evolved greatly. Some Departments have simply been renamed, some have been proposed by Congress and never passed, and some have vanished altogether. Currently, the Cabinet includes the Vice President and the heads of 15 departments. This always-fluctuating body isn’t explicitly included in either the U.S. Code or the Code of Federal Regulations, and isn’t even really outlined in the Constitution; the document says that the President may receive “opinion” from the principal officer in each executive department. It’s up to Congress to decide the number of executive departments, but the President gets to pick who runs each one (with confirmation from the Senate, of course).

Here are 11 of the U.S. Cabinet Departments that have changed since the first Cabinet member, Hamilton, was confirmed on September 11, 1789.

1. Post Office Department

The Post Office Department originated in 1792, began its association with the president's Cabinet during Andrew Jackson’s administration, and was officially designated as a Cabinet Department in 1872. But the Postmaster General's powerful political position in the Cabinet was nixed by President Nixon with the Postal Reorganization Act in 1970. The Act transformed the nearly 200-year-old U.S. Department into a government-owned corporation, which limited its autonomy. Congress put up a fight, though; it did not want to lose control over the agency and the thousands of positions within it, which could be awarded to political do-gooders. With the switch from government-run to quasi-private, the USPS runs like a business, relying on postage revenue rather than taxpayer money, which they haven't used since 1982—except for mailing voter materials to Americans with disabilities or those overseas.

2. Department of War/Navy/Air Force

These three separate departments, now under the Department of Defense, started out under the roof of the Department of War in 1789. When it was created, the War Department oversaw the U.S. Army, but also handled naval affairs and land-based air forces. Eventually, the Navy and Air Force received their own cabinet-level departments, until the Department of Defense came along in 1949 and took over supervising all agencies concerned with national security.

3. Department of Foreign Affairs

What is now the State Department began in the summer of 1789 as the Department of Foreign Affairs, and was created because George Washington realized he needed a Cabinet to help him with his daily duties. This first Cabinet department oversaw management of the Mint, keeping of the Great Seal, and conducting the census.

4. Department of Commerce and Labor

This cabinet, created in 1903, was concerned with controlling the excess of big business. In 1913, the department was divvied up into two departments: the Department of Commerce, which still watched over big business expansion, and the Department of Labor, which took over duties including occupational safety, wage and hour standards, and re-employment services. Because the original department was under the purview of President Teddy Roosevelt and President Taft, all four secretaries were Republican. 

5. Federal Security Agency

Created in 1939, the Federal Security Agency was responsible for overseeing social security, federal education funding, and food and drug safety. It was abolished in 1953 when President Eisenhower supported a plan in the Reorganization Act of 1949 shifting most of the agency’s powers to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

6. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare

This department got renamed and gave away quite a bit of its responsibilities. In 1979, it moved its concerns to health and became the Department of Health and Human Services. Its education duties were passed to the newly created Department of Education.

7. Office of National Drug Control Policy

Demoted from a cabinet-level department in 2009, the Office of National Drug Control Policy was born out of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, giving it the power to enforce laws mandating that all employers contracting with the federal government must meet certain requirements for promoting a drug-free workplace.

8. National Military Establishment

This was the first name for the Department of Defense. It was organized in 1947 to unite all of the various agencies with the intent of protecting national security. It was retitled the Department of Defense in 1949.

9. Federal Emergency Management Agency

FEMA, put in place with the primary objective of responding to disasters that occur in the U.S. that overwhelm the resources of local and state authorities, used to be a cabinet-level department. In March 2003, FEMA was demoted and placed under the watch of the Department of Homeland Security.

10. Central Intelligence Agency

After reorganization following the September 11 attacks, the Director of the CIA is no longer a part of the President’s Cabinet. However, the President still appoints someone to the position. The office succeeded what was originally the Office of Strategic Services, formed during World War II and meant to operate espionage activities. After the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, the Cabinet position of the director was removed. The act created the office of the Director of National Intelligence, which now oversees the CIA.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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