CLOSE
Original image
Getty Images

Music History #9: "Watergate Blues"

Original image
Getty Images

“Watergate Blues”
Written and performed by Tom T. Hall (1973)

The Music

Back in the early days of country music, songs were often like newspaper articles, written and sung to spread the news of some topical event. In 1973, country storyteller-songwriter Tom T. Hall revisited this idea with “Watergate Blues.” In three minutes, Hall sums up the entire 1972 election, and the subsequent break-in and wire-tapping of the Democratic National Committee that exploded into the political scandal of the century. Hall’s song was never a big hit, but it was a concert favorite during the time. (You can hear it here.)

The History

The run-up to the presidential election of 1972 was typically nasty. Democratic candidate George McGovern’s first choice running mate, Thomas Eagleton, was forced off the ticket when it was discovered that he’d had a history of depression. Republicans suggested there had been “shock therapy” involved and that was the end of Eagleton. Conservative pundits also pinned a damaging slogan on McGovern, claiming he was for “amnesty, abortion and acid” (McGovern had suggested that possession of small amounts of marijuana be treated as a misdemeanor, and that was twisted into his supposed support for “acid”).

On June 17, 1972, in Washington, D.C., five men were arrested for trying to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C. (Watergate, often remembered as a hotel, actually included an odd variety of businesses, from a museum of paleontology to an armor repair center.) The idea for the break-in came from one of Nixon’s underlings, G. Gordon Liddy. Liddy was the type of guy who, at a party, would hold his hand directly into a candle flame for laughs. For him, burglarizing and wire-tapping were a necessary means to an end – namely, driving the Democratic party into shambles.

Though a GOP security aide was among the burglars, the Nixon camp initially denied any link to the Watergate break-in. But after a $25,000 cashier’s check, earmarked for the Nixon campaign, ended up in the account of one of the burglars, the hunt was on.

None of this affected Nixon in the voting booths, and he trounced McGovern in November 1972.

But Watergate didn’t go away. Over the next two years, relentless investigation by the FBI, a grand jury, a senate committee, a special prosecutor and two newspaper reporters revealed an undercover operation that brought down the Nixon administration.

Deep Throat

Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had a secret informant on Capitol Hill. Their editor dubbed this source “Deep Throat,” as a nod to a porn movie that was controversial at the time. The reporters met Deep Throat several times in an underground parking garage in Washington, D.C., at 2 am, and got leads for their investigation. What did Deep Throat get in return? The satisfaction of protecting the justice system from presidential abuse, according to Woodward. But thirty years later, when Deep Throat’s identity was revealed as William Mark Felt, a former Deputy Director of the FBI, several books speculated that he was angling for the FBI Director’s job. The leaks did hurt Director L. Patrick Gray, a friend of Nixon’s who’d been chosen over Felt, but Felt never got the coveted position.

Whatever his motivation, Deep Throat’s tips helped Woodward and Bernstein piece together the convoluted puzzle of the Watergate break-in.

By early 1973, heads were rolling. In January, two former Nixon aides, Liddy and James McCord, were convicted of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping. Two months later, top White House staffers H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, and Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, all resigned.

“I Am Not A Crook”

The summer of 1973 featured the televised Senate Watergate hearings, a political cultural spectacle the likes of which had never been seen in America. The star of the show was folksy Democratic senator Sam Ervin. Grilling all the President’s men, and spouting lines like, “I think this is the greatest tragedy this country has ever suffered,” Ervin became the mouthpiece for America’s growing disillusionment over a corrupt government.

If Nixon never knew about the initial break-in (in one of his famous televised denials, he said, “I am not a crook”), he was actively involved in both the cover-up and trying to plug the continuous leaks of information coming from his administration. Especially after a damning testimony by White House aide Alexander Butterfield, who revealed that all of Nixon’s conversations with his staff were tape-recorded, and those tapes still existed.

From then on, Nixon’s daily life became, like Tom T. Hall’s song title, a non-stop Watergate Blues.

Nixon Resigns

Suddenly, everyone was after those tapes. Nixon didn’t want to give them up. His solution, which he presented to the American people in a televised news conference, was to release transcripts of the tapes. It was a stall that only worked for a while. In a Supreme Court ruling, Nixon was forced to hand over all the tapes to investigators. The tapes revealed in no uncertain terms the corruption of the administration.

Pressure against Nixon grew. Even staunch supporters abandoned him. The House of Representatives were poised to recommend Impeachment proceedings. Then on August 9th, 1974, Nixon resigned the presidency.

Many of his top aides went to prison. Nixon was pardoned by the next president, Gerald Ford.

http://youtu.be/lzXL7C0JQDM

The Legacy

Forty years later, some believe that Watergate marks a turning point when America lost its innocence and became cynical (though the same was said of JFK’s assassination). It helped usher in the bitter, angry, polarized politics we see now, the cause of all the paralysis in government, along with a new, aggressive attitude of the media.

But there was a positive side to Watergate. It proved that our system can work. As nasty as the whole affair became, the Constitution and the law ultimately prevailed over the excesses of corrupt politicians (despite Nixon’s pardon, 69 government officials were charged, and 48 were found guilty).

To the day he died in 1994, Nixon claimed he was innocent of any wrongdoing in Watergate.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
entertainment
arrow
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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