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86 Books Barack Obama Has Recommended During His Presidency

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After an eventful and historic run, Barack Obama’s final term as president comes to a close on January 20. One of the legacies he will leave behind is a fervent passion for reading. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Obama said that books offered “the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes,” and they “have allowed me to sort of maintain my balance during the course of eight years.”

President Obama has never been one to keep his love of literature a secret. He’s made a regular habit of sharing reading lists, and in honor of his exit from the White House, Entertainment Weekly has compiled a list of every book he has recommended during his time as president.

The entries were pulled from places like Obama’s summer reading lists, his childhood favorites, and recommendations made for his daughter, Malia. They include plenty of classics such as One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald as well as many contemporary works. And, of course, he made time to brush up on the lives of his predecessors, reading biographies of John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.

In an interview with WIRED last year, President Obama cited several titles that significantly shaped him, including: The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln; The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro; The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin; Andy Grove: The Life and Times of an American by Richard S. Tedlow; Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari; Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman; The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert; In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck; and Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo. They’re just a fraction of the full list, but WIRED calculated that it would take the typical reader 89 hours to get through those 10 books alone. Let’s see if you can finish all 86 in time for our country’s next Inauguration Day.

1. The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer
2. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
3. The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing
4. The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston
5. Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson
6. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
7. Nora Webster, Colm Toibin
8. The Laughing Monsters, Denis Johnson
9. Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China, Evan Osnos
10. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Dr. Atul Gawande
11. Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms, Katherine Rundell
12. The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan
13. Redwall series, Brian Jacques
14. Junie B. Jones series, Barbara Park
15. Nuts To You, Lynn Rae Perkins
16. Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, William Finnegan
17. H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald
18. The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins
19. Seveneves, Neal Stephenson
20. The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
21. All That Is, James Salter
22. The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert
23. The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri
24. Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
25. Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow
26. All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
27. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
28. Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck
29. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
30. Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak
31. Moby Dick, Herman Melville
32. Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson
33. Song Of Solomon, Toni Morrison
34. Parting The Waters, Taylor Branch
35. Gilead, Marylinne Robinson
36. Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam
37. The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton
38. Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois
39. The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene
40. The Quiet American, Graham Greene
41. Cancer Ward, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
42. Gandhi’s autobiography
43. Working, Studs Terkel
44. Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith
45. Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith
46. All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren
47. Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese
48. To the End of the Land, David Grossman
49. Purity, Jonathan Franzen
50. A Bend in the River, V. S. Naipau
51. Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff
52. Lush Life, Richard Price
53. Netherland, Joseph O’Neill
54. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, Salman Rushdie
55. Redeployment, Phil Klay
56. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
57. Plainsong, Kent Haruf
58. The Way Home, George Pelecanos
59. What Is the What, Dave Eggers
60. Philosophy & Literature, Peter S. Thompson
61. Collected Poems, Derek Walcott
62. In Dubious Battle, John Steinbeck
63. Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
64. The Three-Body Problem, Liu Cixin
65. Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling
66. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris
67. John Adams, David McCullough
68. Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, Fred Kaplan
69. Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, Jonathan Alte
70. FDR, Jean Edward Smith
71. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin
72. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln
73. Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution and How It Can Renew America, Thomas L. Friedman
74. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, Steve Coll
75. Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age, Larry Bartels
76. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Robert A. Caro
77. Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Evan Osnos
78. Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
79. Moral Man And Immoral Society, Reinhold Niebuhr
80. A Kind And Just Parent, William Ayers
81. The Post-American World, Fareed Zakaria
82. Lessons in Disaster, Gordon Goldstein
83. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari
84. The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
85. Andy Grove: The Life and Times of an American, Richard S. Tedlow
86. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, Katherine Boo

[h/t Entertainment Weekly]

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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