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9 of Thomas Jefferson’s Head-Turning Hobbies

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If television existed in the 18th and 19th centuries, Thomas Jefferson could’ve earned a living starring in Dos Equis commercials. As a writer, wine-maker, astronomer, gourmet chef, and even a fossil-hunter, our third President was clearly one of the most interesting men of his era. Here are nine of his favorite pastimes.

1. Inventing

Like Benjamin Franklin, the “Sage of Monticello” had a knack for tinkering. His designs include an innovative plow built to penetrate soil more deeply than conventional models.

2. Mockingbird Keeping


Jefferson owned several mockingbirds, but it was an energetic male named “Dick” who stole his heart. According to witnesses, the friendly avian was often allowed to fly about the presidential cabinet, stopping now and again to perch on Jefferson's shoulder. 

3. Astronomy

In 1811, Jefferson penned a detailed account of a solar eclipse he’d observed via specialized telescope. During his administration, he instructed Meriwether Lewis to meticulously watch the stars and record their movement while exploring territories recently acquired through the Louisiana Purchase.

4. Violin Playing

“[Music] is the favorite passion of my soul,” Jefferson once wrote. His mastery of the violin helped win the affections of Martha Wayles Skelton, who loved hearing the future president play and eventually married him in 1772. Their courtship inspired a lovely song, “He Plays the Violin,” which was featured in the Tony Award-winning musical 1776.

5. Architecture


Buildings based on Jefferson’s blueprints include his Monticello home, the Virginia State Capitol, and the University of Virginia’s picturesque rotunda.

6. Horticulture

The politician’s extensive garden included 330 types of vegetables and 170 species of fruit, several of which had rarely, if ever, been grown in U.S. soil previously (such as lima beans and tomatoes).

7. Mathematics

Jefferson gleefully tackled complex equations in his youth, but found them increasingly difficult as he aged. “When I was young,” he wrote to future Treasury Secretary William Duane in 1812, “mathematics was the passion of my life. The same passion has returned upon me, but in unequal powers. Processes which I then read off with the facility of common discourse, now cost me labor, time, and slow investigation.”

8. Obsessive Book-Collecting

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The Jefferson library consisted of 42 books when his father, Peter, passed away in 1757. By 1814, that number rose to a staggering 6487 volumes, enough to restock the Library of Congress after the British army burned it down during a raid of Washington D.C. This wasn't a donation, however. The government paid him $23,950 to part with his collection.

9. Mastodon Hunting

Jefferson dedicated so much time to studying fossils that there’s a species of giant prehistoric ground sloth named in his honor: Megalonyx jeffersonii. Additionally, he arranged to have choice mastodon specimens shipped to and stored in the White House, some of which were later given to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

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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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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]