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11 Interesting Facts About Being on the Service Staff at the White House

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The Residence, by Kate Anderson Brower, is an extraordinary portrait of the butlers, maids, plumbers, and chefs who run the “home” half of the White House. The book is crafted from over 100 interviews, and takes readers to the tragic day Jackie Kennedy returned home in a blood-soaked dress, what Richard Nixon did after resigning, and what it’s like to walk in on naked presidents. The result is a mesmerizing history of America from the service staff’s heretofore untold point of view. A comprehensive list of the fascinating details revealed by Brower would require reprinting the book in its entirety; here's a tiny sampling of things we learned from The Residence.

1. It takes a large staff to care for the White House.

The White House is bigger than you think. Within the building, according to Brower, “132 rooms, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, 8 staircases, and 3 elevators are spread across the 6 floors—plus two hidden mezzanine levels—all tucked within what appears to be a three-story building.” Ninety-six people work full-time in the residence, and there are another 250 part-time employees. Among the jobs they do: butler, maid, chef, plumber, doorman, and florist. The second and third floors of the White House make up the residence.

2. “Devotion” is the service staff’s watchword.

Members of the service staff pride themselves on being able to melt into the walls, remaining simultaneously attentive and unobtrusive. Things like bed turndown, vacuumed carpet, and painted walls happen as if by magic, carefully choreographed around the first family’s schedule. World-class parties can be thrown with a moment’s notice. A shirt removed when the president steps into the shower has vanished for laundering by the time he gets out. 

The job is in many ways a calling, and devotion is required to be a successful member of the service staff. World events drive the daily schedule, and one supervisor reported working 1000 hours of overtime a year. According to a former White House executive chef, “You work for the same people every day, you don’t have any personal life, family, social life, you work what we used to call ‘White House flex time’—that is, you choose any eighty-five hours you want to work each week.”

3. Intimate conditions sometimes lead to embarrassing moments.

Members of the service staff guard fiercely the privacy of the first family. Without the family’s trust, it would be impossible for members of the service staff to do their jobs effectively. Working in such intimate conditions sometimes leads to embarrassing moments. One usher once had to interrupt President Reagan’s shower to deliver an urgent message. “All he had on was a skim of water!” he said. Later that evening, the same usher had to deliver another message to the president. He knocked on the bedroom door and announced that he had a package for the president. Nancy Reagan told him to come in. He entered the bedroom just as the president, wearing nothing but underwear, was walking out of the dressing room. “Oh Ronnie,” said the first lady, “you could at least put on a robe.” Responded the president: “Don’t worry about it. He’s already seen me naked once today. We’re old friends.”

4. Open positions are not advertised.

Don’t bother checking the classified ads for job openings. Available positions on the White House residential staff are filled by word of mouth, with employees bringing in, and vouching for, new hires. Multiple generations of families sometimes work in “the house,” as they call it, and employees generally stay on for decades.

5. The White House chefs are the best in the world.

White House chefs are world-class, and working for the White House means turning down competing job offers worth several hundred thousand dollars more. It’s worth it, said one chef: “The White House is the top of the top. If it’s not the top at the White House, when is it going to be the top?” Chefs prepare meals befitting the office, and also to suit its occupant. “If the president wanted a peanut butter and honey sandwich then by god we made the best peanut butter and honey sandwich we could.”

Great pride is taken not only in the food, but in its presentation. Lyndon Johnson worked erratic hours, which meant the White House chef also had to work erratic hours. Lady Bird Johnson requested that the chef start going home at a reasonable hour, and simply leave a prepared meal in the kitchen. She would reheat the meal for the president, she said, or if she were asleep, the president could heat it when he was ready for dinner. The Maître d’ was indignant at such a suggestion: “The president of the United States having to serve himself dinner? Never!”

6. They refill drinks, fix the plumbing, and find terrorists.

The Secret Service isn’t the only group handling security. The White House maid staff is trained to be alert for signs of unusual activity that might endanger the first family. In 2011, a maid discovered a broken window and piece of broken concrete on the Truman Balcony. An FBI investigation stemmed from the discovery. What the Secret Service had previously dismissed as a gang shooting unrelated to presidential security turned out to be seven shots fired directly at the White House.

7. Presidential transitions are their Super Bowl.

When a new president is elected, he or she takes ownership of the White House at 12:00 on Inauguration Day. Until the stroke of noon, however, the residential staff gives the outgoing president the same level of service as any other day. While everyone is at the Inauguration, the service staff has six hours to transform the White House for its new occupants. It is a massive endeavor requiring the presence of every member of the staff. All of the outgoing family’s belongings are packed and all of the incoming family’s belongings unpacked. When the new president arrives at his or her new home, the mansion is redecorated; rugs, headboards, and mattresses changed; new flowers arranged; paintings replaced; clothes hung; and toothbrush set out. When the outgoing president departed his or her family photographs are hanging on the wall. When the new president arrives, his or her family photos are there.

8. They don’t come cheap, and the president has to pay for it all.

The president is on the hook for his or her personal expenses, and for those of his or her guests. Food, drink, dry cleaning, mints on pillows, and wine add up, and quickly. When parties are thrown in the evenings, in addition to paying the way for hundreds of people, the president has to pay time-and-a-half to the White House staff. It is a shocking and dismaying discovery for every incoming family. Writes Brower, “Even Jackie Kennedy instructed the chief usher to ‘run this place just like you’d run it for the chinchiest president who ever got elected!’ She dropped her voice comically, adding, ‘We don’t have nearly as much money as you read in the papers!’”

9. The president’s food is serious business.

The president’s supply lines of food are prescreened by both the FBI and Secret Service. If the president discovers something he or she likes while traveling, that food is shipped to the home of someone on the residential staff so that nobody knows it’s going to the president. (Likewise, the president’s room service goes to a member of the staff traveling with him or her.) Residence workers also buy the president’s groceries. According to one member of the service staff, “there is no one more important to the physical safety of the president than the pastry chef and the chef.”

10. They work in a museum.

White House curators keep track of “every candlestick and side table.” Furniture and artwork are irreplaceable, which sometimes complicates living arrangements and public events. “You’re working in a museum,” said one member of the service staff. Moving things around for television cameras isn’t as easy as one might think. “It’s not just two chairs for an interview,” but “two chairs in the Blue Room that are older than you are—by centuries—that need to be moved out of the way.” Accordingly, specific members of the staff handle such changes. What is not on display at the White House is stored at a warehouse in Riverdale, Md.

11. With every new family, they must relearn their jobs.

Presidents come and go, but the service staff remains the same. After four or eight years, staff grow close to the first family, and tears are invariably shed when there’s a change in administration. When a new family comes in, a new vibe comes with them. Chefs must learn new palates, florists learn new tastes, and there’s a long stretch during which the incoming family must learn to adapt to a suddenly robust staff eager to attend to their every need. One White House usher in The Residence admitted that some first families are a pleasure to serve, and that with some they have to pretend. “But we pretend very well,” he said.

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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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May 23, 2017
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