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Schlock the Vote: 22 Ridiculous Convention-Themed Items

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This week in Tampa, those attending the 2012 Republican National Convention will exchange far more than plans for adjusting the tax code and adjective-laden riffs relating to the hairstyles of Romney and Ryan. By bringing together an abundance of joyous, carefree, captive audience consumers, political conventions result in a perfect storm scenario for tchotchke peddlers. Everything from weird-looking stuffed animals to giant party-themed belt buckles gets created for these events.

(Also: Partisans apparently love bad wristwatches.)

So here's a look at some of the oddest and most ridiculous convention-related items of the past 50 years. The bulk of these are terrible. But which is the worst of the worst? Let us know in the comments!

1. Jimmy Carter Coloring Book (1976)

This one is just plain bizarre. And I think I may want to own it. As described by a recent seller on eBay: "Coloring book contains somewhat insulting and politically incorrect captions for the caricatures. Coloring book was issued in 1976 for the Democratic Presidential Convention at Madison Square Garden in New York City. ...Features great caricatures of Jimmy Carter, Hubert Humphrey, Carl Albert, Lester Maddox, Dick Daley, Frank Church, Tip O’Neill, John Glenn, George Meany, George Wallace, Bella Abzug, Walter Mondale, Teddy Kennedy, Dan Moynihan, George McGovern, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, and more. Not exactly sure if this was pro Carter or not...as it takes a dig at just about everybody!"


Image via eBay

2. Ugly Phone (1996)


Image via eBay
I mean, even the cord is hideous. That's rare. It's not easy to mess up the look of a phone cord.

3. Republican Delegate Barbies (2000)


Images via eBay and WorthPoint
Delegates at the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia received these dolls in their swag bags. At the time, Republican convention spokeswoman Stephanie Mangino assessed the red-suited Barbie thusly to the Philadelphia Inquirer: "Barbie's almost as stiff as Al Gore." Zing! Or something. Also: Note the tiniest of lanyards.

4. Tipper Gore Drum (2000)

The eBay seller suspects that this item will "display nice" in a museum. Hmm, perhaps. But the same individual notes that the drum is from the 2000 "Democrastic Convention," so keep that in mind if you run a museum and are wondering whether you should trust the seller's judgment on the ideal landing spot for this thing.


Image via eBay

5. Terrible Watch Number One (1996)

The first in a series! To keep them straight, feel free to refer to this one as "Terrible Swatch Watch."


Image via SwatchAndBeyond.com

6. Dukakis Foam Fingers (1988)

Shouldn't the hand be making a #1 sign? Poor Dukakis.


Image via eBay

7. Hideous Cuff Links (1960)


Image via CuffLinks.com
The ad says these are "both historic and nostalgic." I say they are "both poorly designed and look like they feature a donkey that is either near death or coughing."

8. Elephant Ashtrays (1972)


Image via eBay
The 1972 Republican National Convention had to be moved from San Diego to Miami following a bid-rigging scandal. The bottom line: lots of unused novelty ashtrays in SoCal that year.

9. Beanie Babies (2000)


Images via eBay
Do you love nothing more than Beanie Babies and keeping up with the range of complex, interrelated issues that join together to form the basis for national electoral politics? Well, if so, then have I got the ideal product for you. Also: You don't exist. No one likes both those things. So perhaps I'm barking up the wrong tree here in trying to sell you on these stupid things.

10. Partisan Mac & Cheese (2004)


Images via eBay
Pasta made to look like elephants and donkeys is a nice touch by Kraft. But it's not all good. The backs of these boxes feature something called the "Presidential IQ Test." The goal is to match "famous" quotations with the presidents who said them. An example: "Speak softly, but carry a big bowl of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese." They get worse from there.

11. Terrible Watch Number Two (2000)

Is this monstrosity worse than the Democrats' Swatch watch? You be the judge.


Image via eBay

12. Elephant Alligator Thing (1988)


Images via eBay
This hybrid stuffed animal from the 1988 Republican National Convention in New Orleans is like something out of a made-for-Syfy movie. It has the head of an elephant but the body of an alligator. What gives? Actually, come to think of it, both name mash-ups work: elegator is great, and so is alliphant.

13. Saddest Pennant Ever (1984)


Image via Minnesota Historical Society
Womp womp.

14. Garish Belt Buckle (1992)


Image via eBay
What is more befitting for a Republican National Convention held in Houston than a custom-made, Texas-sized belt buckle? A recent eBay seller noted that buying the buckle would amount to "your chance to be a part of history." I don't know about all that, but I have to admit, the elephant on the front of this thing does appear to be having one hell of a good time.

15. Miller High Life Convention Survival Kit (1964)


Image via eBay
Includes Tums antacid, Alka-Seltzer, aspirin, breath mints, a bandage, and a little "Do Not Disturb" sign. It's odd, but for real: This kit is fantastic. I'm hoping they still make these, but unrelated to political conventions.

16. Bush/Quayle Baseball Card (1992)

The craziest thing about this one is that Upper Deck produced this card commemorating the 1992 Republican Convention... in 2009. A few notes: (1) Was there really Bush/Quayle-specific nostalgia in 2009? (2) What a perfect way to celebrate the historic 17th anniversary of that memorable convention. (3) This card was a bad idea.


Image via eBay

17. Wizard Hat & Spaghetti T-Shirt (1996)

Not even this all-powerful, mystical pasta T-shirt could transform the Dole/Kemp ticket into a winner.


Image via eBay

18. Computer Terminal Decanter (1984)


Image via eBay
Wait, so you mean they not only had computers in 1984, but they also had crazy-looking computer replicas that featured giant buttons and doubled as alcohol receptacles? I love the '80s.

19. "Hello Lyndon" 45 rpm Record (1964)


Image via eBay
In 1964, Hello, Dolly! was a big deal on Broadway. So LBJ co-opted the song for the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. Thankfully, both "Hello, Mitt!" and "Hello, Barack!" don't seem like viable options in 2012.

20. Terrible Watch Number Three (1992)


Image via eBay
So I'm just going to call it: This one is the worst of the watches. Is that the Astrodome in the foreground, or a spaceship with teeth?

21. Betty Ford Matchbooks (1976)


Image via eBay
The backs of these matchbooks note that "Your Vote and Influence [are] Appreciated." OK, makes sense. The fronts say "Win with BETTY'S HUSBAND." OK, that sounds like a license to engage in infidelity.

22. Mitt Romney Finger Puppet (2012)


The end.


Image via Etsy

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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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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