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OurNixon.com

SXSW Q&A: Penny Lane, Director, Our Nixon

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OurNixon.com

Throughout Richard Nixon’s presidency, aides H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin filmed their experiences on Super 8 cameras. That footage was seized during the Watergate investigation and was forgotten for almost 40 years. Now, in the documentary Our Nixon—which played at the SXSW Film Festival this week—audiences will get a chance to see that footage for the first time. We sat down with director Penny Lane to chat about finding the tapes, using an all-archival format, and why this footage turns preconceived notions about the people behind Watergate on their head.

m_f: How did you find out about the footage, and once you found out about it, how did you actually get a hold of it?
Penny Lane: Brian Frye—we produced it together, and I directed it—heard about the home movie collection 12 years ago, and it was because he just had a friend who knew about it. He’s always been, and I have always been, interested in found footage, particularly amateur films or orphan films that weren’t made by professionals or have a funny story behind them.

So this was right up our alley. Brian didn’t know what he wanted to do with them but he knew that these [Super 8] home movies were there; no one had really seen them, because the National Archives had never made them accessible—they had never been put on video.

When we met in 2008, Brian mentioned it to me. But it was one of those things where it was clear that he’d been mentioning it to a lot of people, and I was like, “Are you really going to do anything with it? Because if you’re not going to do anything, I think I might. Maybe we should collaborate, so I don’t just steal your ideas.” So we started it together. The initial investment was scary in a way, because we’d never seen [what was on the film]. And we had to pay a lot of money to make the first video transfers.

m_f: There were approximately 30 hours of footage. Did you actually watch all of it?
PL: Oh yeah, many times. That’s the fun part. But we both didn’t know what to expect. I think we assumed that the footage would be more about Nixon, but it was very clear, almost right away, that it was really about the people holding the cameras. If there was a good shot of Nixon, we used it in the film. I mean, he’s there all the time, but he’s always on the other side of the press corps, facing an audience, but you’re behind him. Or he’s through a door, around a corner.

m_f: You used only archival material for the film. Why did that feel like the right creative choice?
PL: The only thing we added was some original score, some music and text. I think [we used only archival material] for a couple reasons. First, it’s an interesting challenge. But for this film specifically, I think the all-archival idea was really important, because I think that the film ended up being almost about the historical record, about what things get recorded and why, and what point of view different pieces of the historical record have.

We didn’t want the film to be about me and Brian saying, “Here’s what happened and what it means.” I definitely have a lot of ideas about what all of these things mean. But we wanted to present factually, as much as we could, what happened, and leave it up to people to see that there’s contestation of meaning there. Was Watergate a tragedy because a very, very bad group of people gained power in really icky, bad ways, and then abused it and traumatized American people? Or was Watergate a tragedy because Nixon was a great president who was taken down by a left-wing press that blew this whole thing out of proportion? People have totally different ideas about what the tragedy is. Or why it’s a tragedy. So we just thought that that was really interesting. The all-archival format lets you, instead of you imposing your ideas with hindsight onto history, experience it as it was experienced.

m_f: How much research did you have to do, then, into the events that happened in order to craft a cohesive through line, and to make sure people understood the context?
PL: A lot. But the good news was that I didn’t know much about the Nixon presidency. I don’t know much more than your average person, I think, of my age, so it wasn’t that hard to figure out what the entry point information had to be. It was good to start off being dumb.

But then, obviously, as with any documentary, a year later we’re way lost in the minutiae, and I’m like, “Oh we have to talk about that, because, you know, later in life, Ehrlichman…”

The amount of information that actually goes into a film is so small. It’s way less than a New Yorker article’s worth of information that actually makes it into a film, usually. So you start getting like all lofty and ambitious about all this crazy deep information you’re going to get in there, but 85 minutes does not hold that much. So it’s very cursory—you actually don’t have to know anything about Nixon or his presidency to kind of be able to literally sit in the movie and you should to be able to get, generally speaking, what’s going on.
Things like [Nixon’s trip to] China—the world-altering significance of the China trip—I didn’t know that. So we wanted to make sure that for things like that, people knew it was a really big deal.

m_f: You were dealing with a huge amount of material. What kind of stuff did you want to include but couldn’t?
PL: It can be really frustrating, because we also made other kinds of artistic decisions—like, we were going to stick to their real voices. [If] Haldeman wrote a memoir, I couldn’t just have an actor read the damn memoir. We were trying so much to avoid any kind of editorializing, even to the extent of like having to choose an actor to read or perform as Haldeman.

They were famous people, and they were interviewed a lot, Haldeman and Ehrlichman, when they were alive—but only ever about Watergate. Pretty much no one ever talked to them about anything else. We were trying to step just to the left of Watergate—acknowledge it but also try to say anything else about Nixon or his presidency. And we almost couldn’t, in a sense, because we were constrained by the historical record. If some journalist in 1988 didn’t ask a question of Ehrlichman that I wish he’d asked, oh well!
And that becomes another level of the film. You’re seeing the way that different people are shaping narratives, over a 40-year history. From the people holding the Super 8 cameras to the news secretary at the time, to the reporters of the time to the reporters later, everyone is shaping and trying to win a battle about, ultimately, the meaning of Nixon’s presidency, what’s his legacy, and what should we think about when we think about that time. And they’re literally fighting. In the film, and to this day, it’s still going on.

m_f: Was there anything, while you were going through the footage, that you found that really surprised you?
PL: What surprised me was how young the staff looked. I’m in my early thirties, and a lot of them just looked like babies. And that is just not what I pictured, when I pictured a White House staff. But I actually think that’s normal, I think probably a lot of White House staffs are very young people. And that blew my mind. You think to yourself, “People who have that much power, they are different. They’re somehow smarter, and more sophisticated, and more knowledgeable about the world.” But then you’re like, no, they’re 22, and this is their first job.

I think probably in any White House—I’m just guessing—that it’s a very kind of militaristic layout. It’s very ordered and it’s very precise, and you report to this person who reports to that person, the chain of command is very clear and it’s very important, and you can’t go outside that. So I think a lot of them … I think especially Chapin, because he was really young—they spoke about this in various interviews in their lives, that they feel that they were taking orders. So you get into that whole area of responsibility in morality. This is a bad thing to do, but if the President of the United States asks you to do it, do you do it? And I think that that’s an interesting moral zone. It’s not the subject of the film, but it is part of it. What’s the mindset, how do you end up doing the things they did? We always wanted to know the answer to that.

m_f: I was surprised by how much I felt for them. I didn’t know the names of the people who were involved, but I came at it with this vague idea of what happened, and the takeaway is that the people who did this were bad people.
PL: I was surprised how much I sympathized with them as well; at the beginning, I didn’t know that I would identify so much with Republicans working for Nixon in the ‘70s. So many things are different between me and Haldeman, but ultimately I really came to care about them. I think everybody who makes documentaries, in a sense, ends up kind of falling in love with their characters. And you have to actually fight that, because I kept catching myself sort of just falling way too far into believing everything Ehrlichman says, or really wanting to defend them. And that’s not my goal.

I’m sure certain people will think that the film still does it. But we really did everything we could to sort of present points of view without comment, and if you choose to read this Haldeman moment as someone who is stonewalling because they’re a criminal and lying, or you choose to read it as someone who’s pissed off at Mike Wallace because Mike Wallace is being a jerk, that’s up to you. I can totally see that, either way, and there are a lot of moments in the film like that.

m_f: There’s a scene in the film of Nixon calling Neil Armstrong on the Moon, shot by one of the aides, and it’s just incredible. It’s this very inspiring moment of American history that we’re all aware of, but to see it from that angle is mindblowing. And it’s also sad, because we don’t really do things like that anymore. What was it like to find that footage?
PL: What a moment, right? It’s one of my favorite scenes. I had never thought about [Nixon’s] relationship to the moon landing. You never think about Nixon. You think about JFK; you forget that, duh, he was dead, we all know that. But I never thought, “oh yeah, Nixon was president.” We loved that scene for a lot of reasons, but we especially loved it because it was one of those moments where you’re like, “God, I’m dumb…Nixon was president, dummy.”

[When I found it,] I was just like, “oh my God.” I was watching the footage, and it’s so fun because it’s all silent and the tapes aren’t labeled, they’re not in order; you don’t know what’s going to happen next and you don’t know where you are. It’s very disorienting. And I was like, “Oh my God, it’s the Apollo moon landing. As experienced at the White House.” I was really excited.

m_f: If the tapes aren’t labeled, they don’t have dates on them, so how did you figure out what was going on?
PL: That was a huge project. It became this nerdy challenge for me; I loved it. I got really good at it. There are certain things we never will know; there are a lot of shots of Nixon arriving at airports, and shaking hands with people, or giving speeches, and you’re like, “it’s silent, guys!” What’s he talking about? No one knows!

So I would say, “It looks like Nixon is greeting a foreign head of state. I don’t know what that flag is. And I don’t know who that person is.” So I would literally freeze frame the flag, and Google “flag, orange, star, blue background.” And I’d find the flag—and then, of course, a lot of countries change their flags, but okay—and then it was like, this is not called that country anymore—so we’d find the flag and I’d be like, “Okay, who was the head of state, it looks like, based on the clips before it and after it it’s 1971, who was the head of state in that country in 1971,” and I’d be like, “wow! That’s Mobutu!” And then you’d look it up, and you’re like, “He’s a crazy murderous dictator!” I learned so much stuff that I had no reason to know, and now I’m an expert on so many weird things. Like who was the head of state in various countries around the world from 1969 to 1973.

They were really good at documenting a lot of stuff, so there was a lot of cross-referencing that we could do. So Haldeman kept a diary, which you hear a little bit about in the film. It was incredibly detailed—every single day: where they were, who they talked to. So you could figure out things. You could say, “Oh, okay, they went to Hawaii, and it’s July of 1969, and oh, it’s a Vietnam Peace Summit, and that’s the guy from South Vietnam.”

And I’m like, oh okay, now I know where I am. But they’re really just filming booby birds and stuff. They always film the important thing, and then a whole bunch of other stuff that’s not important at all. It’s charming. Like, the poop on the ground.

m_f: If you couldn’t place a clip from the home movies in context, did you use it?
PL: Oh, no, God, no.

m_f: So was it a relief to be able to say, “This is something I can put aside now because I don’t have any context for it so I can’t use it”?
PL: No. I think you could have made a very different film that was just travels with Nixon. To me, that was the most heartbreaking loss—they went to all these places, so there’s this incredible footage of Russia, of being a tourist in Moscow in 1970 and what that looked like. Or Iran, or Thailand. It’s just interesting to see their tourist footage. But it didn’t really add up to that much, and so we only use a tiny bit of it.

A lot of [the footage we couldn’t use] ended up in the closing credits, or the opening credits, because it was just [so cool]. Like the motorcycle-riding bear. That’s from the Moscow circus. There was an hour of footage, and we used two seconds of a bear riding a motorcycle just because we needed to show it.

I think we could use [a lot of the footage as] a DVD extra; there’s infinite potential. We have a lot of cool footage of things like Nixon playing the piano for Harry Truman’s birthday, and it’s really great footage but there was just no reason to use it in the film. And you can kind of do a people compilation, like all of the shots of LBJ are interesting, just because it’s LBJ and he’s always interesting.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES