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Grover Cleveland’s Deadly Secret

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Getty Images

By Matthew Algeo

In early June of 1893, President Grover Cleveland—who was born on March 18, 1837—discovered a large tumor on the roof of his mouth. The cancer was progressing quickly. Doctors determined that if the president was to survive, the growth had to be removed. But the procedure was complicated, and Cleveland’s doctors feared that the surgery could trigger a stroke. There was also a 15 percent chance in those days that the president could die under the knife. After weighing his options, Cleveland chose to have the tumor removed, under one condition: The operation had to be conducted in total secrecy. The president feared that Wall Street—already reeling from falling stock prices in the midst of a depression—would panic if news of his illness leaked. Even his vice president, Adlai Stevenson, was to be kept in the dark.

On the morning of June 30, President Cleveland and six of the nation’s finest physicians assembled on board the Oneida, a yacht anchored in New York Harbor. Sitting in a deck chair, the president smoked cigars and chatted amiably with the men as the boat set sail for Long Island Sound. The following morning, the doctors scrambled below deck to prepare for the surgery. In lieu of an operating table, a large chair was bound to the mast in the yacht’s parlor. A single light bulb, connected to a portable battery, would provide all of the light. The doctors boiled their instruments and pulled crisp white aprons over their dark suits. Shortly after noon, the president entered the parlor and took his seat.

Using nitrous oxide and ether as anesthetics, the doctors removed the tumor, along with five teeth and much of Cleveland’s upper left palate and jawbone. The procedure lasted 90 minutes. It also took place wholly within the patient’s mouth, so that no external scars would betray the clandestine operation.

On July 5, Cleveland was dropped off at his summer home on Cape Cod. He healed remarkably fast. By the middle of July, he was fitted with a vulcanized rubber prosthesis that plugged the hole in his mouth and restored his normal speaking voice. All the while, the public was told that the president had merely suffered a toothache.

On August 29, The Philadelphia Press published an exposé by Elisha Jay Edwards. The headline read, “The President A Very Sick Man.” Edwards, the paper’s Manhattan correspondent, had been tipped off by a New York doctor who’d heard rumors of the secret surgery. After some additional digging, Edwards located Ferdinand Hasbrouck, the dentist who had administered the anesthesia to Cleveland, and verified the details.

The Philadelphia Press story was remarkably accurate. In fact, it still stands as one of the great scoops in the history of American journalism. But it wasn’t perceived that way by the public. The Cleveland administration categorically denied the charges and launched a smear campaign to discredit and embarrass the reporter. Newspapers denounced Edwards as a “disgrace to journalism” and a “calamity liar.” The tactics were effective. The public sided with Cleveland, who’d built his reputation as the “Honest President.” Meanwhile, Edwards’ career was effectively ruined. For the next 15 years, the veteran reporter could barely find work. In 1909, he landed a job as a columnist for a struggling young newspaper called The Wall Street Journal. But Edwards’ career was still tainted by the allegations that he’d faked the story about Grover Cleveland.

One of the doctors who performed the surgery, W.W. Keen, always regretted how Edwards had been so unjustly maligned. In 1917, a quarter-century after the operation and a decade after Cleveland’s death, Keen finally decided to do something about it. He published a confessional in The Saturday Evening Post, hoping to “vindicate Mr. Edwards’ character as a truthful correspondent.” The admission was successful. The old newspaperman was inundated with congratulatory letters and telegrams, and the outpouring deeply moved him. Edwards even wrote to Keen to thank him for restoring his reputation. 

Executive Disorders

Grover Cleveland was hardly the only president to conceal a major medical crisis from the public. On October 2, 1919, Woodrow Wilson suffered a massive stroke that paralyzed the left side of his body and incapacitated him so completely—physically and mentally—that, in the words of one historian, “The president should have resigned immediately.” Instead, the White House physician, Dr. Cary Grayson, announced that President Wilson was merely suffering from “nervous exhaustion.”

Wilson’s successor, Warren Harding, wasn’t exactly the picture of health, either. His heart was so weak that he had to sleep propped up with pillows. If he slept lying down, blood would pool in his lungs, making it difficult for him to breathe. On July 27, 1923, Harding suffered what was almost certainly a heart attack, but his doctor—a homeopath who liked to prescribe pills by color (pink was a favorite)—insisted it was simply food poisoning. Harding died in office six days later.

In the early 1960s, John F. Kennedy concealed the fact that he suffered from a debilitating condition called Addison’s disease during his presidency. And more recently, Ronald Reagan’s staff covered up the fact that the president showed signs of dementia in the White House. Of course, on the order of presidential secrets, it’s difficult to know what’s more disturbing: the cover-ups that go on inside the Oval Office, or the ones that originate in the doctor’s office.

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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