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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
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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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