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The Surprising Story of Famed JFK Impersonator Vaughn Meader (and Why You've Never Heard of Him)

In 1963, the Grammy Award for Album of the Year didn’t go to Elvis, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, Johnny Cash, or even The Beach Boys, though they all released albums during the qualifying year. Instead, it went to a comedy album called The First Family by a man you’ve probably never heard of: Vaughn Meader.

It wasn’t just critical acclaim: The album reportedly sold 6.5 million copies in its first six weeks of release, the fastest-selling record of its time. Meader was wildly popular. He appeared on late night shows, made nightclub and radio appearances, gave interviews, performed at Carnegie Hall, rebuffed an invitation from Frank Sinatra to join the Rat Pack, and generally basked in the spotlight all while donning the persona of another man. But within a few years, Meader all but disappeared—because the man he was embodying was President John F. Kennedy.

For years prior, Meader had been a piano-playing nightclub performer in New York with a musical comedy act. After Kennedy was elected, the Maine native found his calling in impersonating the President after tossing out a few lines onstage in Greenwich Village one night. It didn’t take much to tweak his own New England accent and transform into the young politician from Brookline, Mass.

Meader went on to hold mock press conferences, relying partially on plants with setup questions and largely on his own skills as an improviser. While Jacqueline Kennedy was not too amused by the act, JFK himself reportedly played The First Family before a cabinet meeting, bought copies to give as Christmas gifts, and once opened a Democratic National Committee dinner with, “Vaughn Meader was busy tonight, so I came myself.” He was the right person at the right time, and the American people—already infatuated with the Kennedys—devoured the relatively good-humored jokes about the new First Family.

Watching him now (like on this appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show), the voice and gestures seem broad and obvious, but that’s because Meader set the standard by which all other JFK impersonations since have been based. He recorded The First Family the very same night as Kennedy’s Cuban Missile crisis speech (which the studio audience was blissfully unaware of), and he became a household name until November 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated and the country changed forever.

As the story goes, on the day that Kennedy was killed, 27-year-old Meader hopped into a taxi at the Milwaukee airport at 1 p.m., just half an hour after the event.

His driver asked, "Did you hear about Kennedy in Dallas?" Meader, who was oblivious to the news, readied himself for a joke and replied, "No, how does it go?" Then he heard the news on the radio.

“It was character assassination," he later told the Washington Post 40 years later. "My character was assassinated. I got a bum rap."

After that, Meader never did his Kennedy impression again, though people asked. His last television appearance was a painfully ill-received spot on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. No one wanted to see Meader as himself—he said people would approach him after the assassination and offer condolences as if he was a member of the family—and his new material simply didn’t stack up compared to the act that made him a star. In the following decades, Meader bounced around the country, tried out new routines, found alcohol and drugs, and then found God. He taught and played music, managed a pub, and was forever doomed to rely on the cultural phenomenon that brought him fame and fortune, while also distancing himself from it. He even reclaimed his given first name—Abbott (Vaughn was his middle name)—and put Vaughn Meader completely behind him.

Near the end of his life, he sold the movie rights to his story to help with medical expenses—Bill Hader was reported to be playing the lead role, but the movie has yet to be made. A lifelong smoker, Meader died in 2004 at age 68 from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

While inextricable ties to Kennedy ultimately doomed Meader’s career, he told the Los Angeles Times in 1997 that he had found happiness in life outside the limelight: “I'm better off than I've ever been," he said. "When I had the album, all those lowlifes around me who said they were friends, what I didn't realize was they were in it for the business. Now the funny thing is I'm a bum and I find people who really care. I have a wife who cares, friends who care. I look at Elizabeth Taylor at the Academy Awards or wherever, and I say, 'She any better off than me?' and I doubt she is."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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iStock
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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

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]

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