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Library of Congress

The Epic Battle Over Congressional Seating

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Library of Congress

During the State of the Union a few weeks ago, I noticed that the members of Congress were sitting on rows of theater-style seating in the House Chamber. In a lot of period movies though, pre-20th century, we see them seated at individual desks. This isn’t just movies taking creative liberties—the House really did have desks at one point, and the change to their modern seating arrangements took 84 years of arguing!

The House Chamber was originally outfitted with an assigned desk for each representative, which provided seating for House sessions and also served as their personal office space. As some Congressmen saw it, though, the desk’s dual functions sometimes got muddied. Some representatives were accused of carrying on all sorts of business and conversation while the House was in session, making too much noise and wasting everyone’s time.

As far back as 1829, the Clerk of the House of Representatives records representatives complaining about the seating situation. That January, Ichabod Bartlett of New Hampshire called the desks a “cause of confusion detrimental to the public business,” but other representatives defended them as a convenience. In 1841, the Clerk noted another complaint and, the following year, the first official attempt to have them removed. William Cost Johnson of Maryland brought a proposition to remove the desks before the House, but it was defeated by a vote of 93 to 74. Five years later, another proposal went nowhere. 

In 1859, a third proposal succeeded—103 to 73—and the desks were set to be removed and replaced with benches at the start of the next year. The victory was short lived. With the new seating arrangement, the New York Herald reported, “the members were thus in closer contact and were more easily impelled by the prevailing passion.”

“As a consequence there was much shaking of fists under noses, much hurling threats of personal violence and much assuming of insulting and defiant attitudes.”

After just 12 weeks, a special seating committee switched the seating back to desks and chairs. 

W. Porcher Miles of South Carolina wrote the minority report for the committee and said the debate over seating was “one of the comfort and convenience of the Members on the one side and the intelligent and expeditious dispatch of the business of the country on the other.”

The main argument for keeping the desks, he said, was also the strongest reason for getting rid of them: the convenient space it gave representatives for writing letters and having conversations. “The first duty of the Representative was to attend the business going on the House,” he wrote, and the desks were clearly getting in the way of that, with “much time lost in repetitions and misunderstandings.”

The setback didn’t stop the desks’ critics, and more proposals to get rid of them came in 1878, 1883, 1899, and 1901. All of them were rejected. 

In 1908, the Cannon House Office Building was completed, providing desks and plenty of office space for members of the House. During the same period, the number of representatives was increasing based on population growth in the country and it was deemed “a physical impossibility to accommodate the larger membership under present conditions.” Another measure to ditch the desks was introduced in 1913, and the seats were finally switched over permanently after almost a century of debate. And they say the wheels of government grind slowly. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]