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Library of Congress

Presidential Flight Before Air Force One

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Library of Congress

They’ve been called “flying Oval Offices,” presently contain some of the world’s most high-tech missile defense systems, and have even starred in an action movie alongside Harrison Ford. Yet, contrary to popular belief, presidential airplanes have been around since 1933—26 years before the phrase “Air Force One” was first uttered.

Having previously become the first U.S. president to leave the country during his term (albeit by ship), Theodore Roosevelt broke new ground once again in Missouri’s Kinloch Airfield on October 11, 1910. A mere seven years after the Wright brothers had taken off at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, ex-president Roosevelt had unexpectedly accepted pilot Arch Hoxsey’s offer to ride in his plane while visiting the area. “You know I didn’t intend to do it,” he later told a reporter, “but when I saw the thing there, I could not resist it.”

Ultimately, it was the nation’s second President Roosevelt who became the first to take flight during his term in office. January 11, 1943 saw FDR simultaneously become the first president to leave the country in wartime, and the first since Lincoln to enter an active theater of war when he met with Winston Churchill in Casablanca, Morocco. However, by then his administration had already owned an aircraft for a decade: a model known as the “Douglas Dolphin Amphibian” had been built for Roosevelt in 1933, although no record exists confirming that our 32nd president ever actually used it.

For the subsequent Yalta Conference, FDR took off in a new plane nicknamed “The Sacred Cow” by White House reporters. Complete with a bedroom and telephone, it even included an elevator specially built to accommodate the president’s wheelchair. “The Sacred Cow” was subsequently inherited by Harry Truman who, in a 1945 trip to Olympia, Washington, embarked upon the first domestic flight in the history of the presidency.

Truman also employed “The Sacred Cow” for more nefarious purposes. According to biographer Matthew Algeo, whenever flying over Ohio—the home state of his chief political rival, Senator Robert Taft—he’d command the pilot to “activate the waste disposal system … the discharged fluids, of course, evaporated quickly in the cold, dry air outside. But it was Truman’s way of having a private joke at Taft’s expense.” Two years later, a new plane called “The Independence,” after the president’s hometown in Missouri, was commissioned and assembled, complete with the head of a bald eagle painted on its nose.

Like Truman (and unlike FDR), Dwight Eisenhower was fond of flight. His administration also saw the dawn of a new era in 1953 when a ride he’d been given by the Air Force happened to have the same call sign as a commercial flight. Nine years later, having been inspired by this embarrassing snafu, the military introduced the practice of referring to any plane the sitting president is currently riding in as “Air Force One,” a practice that’s continued to this day. 

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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]