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11 Defunct Federal Agencies

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Wikimedia Commons

So-called ABC agencies are shuffled, reorganized, eliminated or created with every administration. Some are formed in response to a specific event (like the TSA), and others are dismantled because they’re no longer necessary or have fallen out of political favor. Here are 11 interesting examples of the latter. 

1. War Production Board

How do you build 60,000 warplanes in a year, then twice as many the next year, plus enough tanks and guns to take down the Axis of Evil? Turn your car and appliance manufacturers into makers of planes and tanks, of course. The War Production Board, established in 1942, did exactly that. The WBP rationed production materials while launching a nationwide scrap recycling program for civilians for ensure demands could be met. At the end of the war in 1945, the WPB changed its name and focus to the Civilian Production Board, which encouraged those same factories—Ford, Chrysler, GM and others—to use their now-larger facilities to begin producing enough cars and refrigerators to meet consumer demand.

2. Board of Tea Appeals

You don’t have to be a history major to know that tea is kind of a big deal in the U.S. We have not one, but two different Tea Parties, and for 99 years, we also had a USDA-selected board of “experts in teas” to taste all imported tea products before allowing their entry into the U.S. Teas that failed the seven-deep taste test were then sent to the Board of Tea Appeals, where a re-tasting and adjudication process would either override or sustain the decision of the tasters. Product that failed the process was either destroyed or exported back to the terrible-tea-growing place from whence it came. The Board was founded in 1897 and (finally) repealed in 1996. 

3. Office of Technology Assessment

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You know what’s handy? Having easy-to-parse reports on scientific studies for Congresspersons to read. I mean, honestly, we’re not all rocket surgeons, and those studies can be really, really long. And we want Congress to read them, so maybe a tl;dr version isn’t such a bad idea.

We actually had a system in place for providing lawmakers with exactly that: Beginning in 1972, the OTA compiled authoritative, objective reports for Congress on topics as wide-ranging as addiction to workplace safety. (They’re all archived and available, too.) The agency was dismantled in 1995 under Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” to cut federal spending on unnecessary programs, but in recent years many prominent climatologists and biologists have petitioned for its reinstatement. 

4. Federal Theatre Project 

One of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration divisions aimed to employ actors during the Great Depression, which served both as a means of keeping artsy-types fed and sheltered but also ensured that a financially insecure public had some means of entertainment. Additionally, the Federal Theatre Project helped create a wealth of culturally relevant art. Many actors, directors and playwrights were employed by the FTP, including Arthur Miller and Orson Welles. Though the FTP was generally successful, it was defunded in 1939, just 4 years after its founding, after Congressional leaders argued that the agency’s productions were too overtly political. (One favorite FTP series, called "Living Newspapers," simply adapted stories from newspaper articles, usually about hot-button issues like income inequity and the rampant threat of syphilis.) 

5.  Federal Writers’ Project

Another division of the Works Progress Administration hired authors, poets, librarians, and researchers to build a comprehensive guide to America, through state and regional travel guides, oral histories, children’s books, and works of fiction. Like the FTP, the FWP was enormously successful in that it accomplished exactly what it was meant to do: keep Americans employed, and create a wealth of informative, entertaining literature for future generations. For $80 a month, the Federal Writers’ Project employed future literary stars like Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and John Steinbeck (where he found the majority of inspiration for The Grapes of Wrath). The program’s demise came in 1939, again because the project was seen as both socialistic and left-wing, accusations arising primarily from the project’s “unvarnished look at the lives of minorities and other economically downtrodden groups.”

6. Committee on Public Information

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That’s a nice-sounding name, right? Public information is good. But the CPI was a bit less concerned with informing the public than it was with drumming up enthusiasm for the United States’ involvement in WWI. From 1917 through 1919, committee chairman George Creel and his team used every available medium to call Americans to action. As Creel described it, the CPI created “propaganda in the true sense of the word, meaning the 'propagation of faith.'” Creel & Co. used radio, newspapers, telegraph and movies, and even hired spokesmen to chat with civilians at social events to spread a positive spin on the war, but the most successful campaign was the enduringly creepy “I Want You” image of Uncle Sam for the U.S. Army, perhaps the most famous poster of all time. (Sorry, Pink Floyd and Farrah Fawcett.) 

7. Bureau of Prohibition


In 1920, the 18th Amendment banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol in the U.S. Prohibition was crazy: Even though the amendment was popular enough to be ratified, it overburdened the legal system by making criminals of just about everyone overnight. The Bureau of Prohibition was formed to manage the massive black market alcohol trade; its Prohibition Agents, most famously the untouchable Eliot Ness, spent the next 13 years tracking down and burning barrels of moonshine, arresting people (and gangster-type people), busting up speakeasies, and generally being huge buzzkills. After the 21st Amendment repeal, the Bureau was partially disbanded and renamed the Alcohol Tax Unit, then later absorbed by the ATF.

8.  Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy 

Before we had the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, we had a guy named Clinton Hart Merriam, the first director of the Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy. In 1885, Merriam was tasked with tracking and supporting populations of birds and mammals with “economic value,” i.e., animals we hunt for sport and those that prevent pests. But Merriam was less interested in the “support” part of his job and focused largely on field studies. He was smart, too, and eventually increased his budget from $5000 to $27,000 by convincing lawmakers that he should also study flora, fauna, and wild game. His fundraising efforts earned a mildly scathing nickname (“the Division of Extravagant Ornithology and Mammalogy,” which might be more hurtful if it weren’t so impossible to say quickly), but Merriam proved to be useful anyway: He was the first to identify and map the spread of invasive species in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

9. U.S. Metric Board

President Ford signed the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 to give official federal sanction for the U.S. to convert to using the metric system. Soon after, the U.S. Metric Board was formed, ostensibly to set the metrication process in motion. But the board members couldn’t agree on whether they were supposed to simply encourage use of the metric system, or if they were meant to convert all standard measurements to metric. To help sway Americans young and old to the simpler decimal-based system, the board printed a fascinating 18-page book called All About Metric, which illustrated in black and white that 900 grams of tomatoes are roughly equivalent to 32 ounces of tomatoes. After much waffling and failure to gain traction, the board was disbanded in 1982.

10. Office of Road Inquiry 

A little-known fact about paved roads is that they weren’t built for cars, but for bicycles. The Office of Road Inquiry was formed in 1893 to look at the pros and cons of paving streets, mostly thanks to pressure from the Good Roads Movement, a small but persistent group of bicycling enthusiasts. Bikes were all the rage in the 1890s, but dirt roads were difficult to maintain, and were often full of holes or eroded by weather. The GRM argued that improved roads would facilitate farmers’ transport of goods into cities and increase local economies. The tactic worked, and the Office of Road Inquiry used its modest budget to pave small sections of rural roads in asphalt or cement so local governments could determine whether or not it was worth the effort. It was, and now most streets and roads in the U.S. are paved. The Office of Road Inquiry closed in 1905. 

11. Freedmen’s Bureau

Abraham Lincoln created the Freedmen’s Bureau to assist former slaves following the end of the Civil War. The Freedmen’s Bureau distributed rations to newly freed slaves and helped them locate displaced family members, find employment, learn to read, and establish permanent housing. Despite the Bureau’s short lifespan—it was disbanded in 1872 by Ulysses S. Grant—its strong education system for African Americans remains today: The United Negro College Fund supports over 100 colleges and universities in the U.S.

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]