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Debate Prep: A Brief History of American Political Debates

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by Maggie Koerth-Baker

From the Revolution up to the turn of the 20th century, America preferred that its presidential candidates be seen and not heard. The presidency was regarded as so solemn an office that it was considered indecent and prideful to aspire to. Instead, candidates were to approach nomination as if it were something that just happened to them—”Oh golly. Well, if The People say I must, I guess I have to!”

While the candidates had their hands full cultivating the self-effacing persona of an honest leader, their handlers, political allies, and fans did all the dirty work: printing fliers, holding public Q & A sessions, and generally campaigning on the candidate’s behalf. They even handled press write-ups, this being an era when newspapers were often owned and run by political partisans who made no claims about fair and balanced reportage.

However, this isn’t to say that politicians of the time didn’t know public speaking from a hole in the head.

Great, sweeping debates were common in the houses of Congress, and many politicians were experts at using the spoken word to convince their colleagues of a particular point—they simply thought it disgraceful to turn those oratory skills on the unwitting public. So great was the social taboo against campaigning for yourself that it wasn’t until 1840 that a candidate, Whig party member William Henry Harrison, was able to advocate his own election and still win. Even then, most historians think he got away with it because of a split in the Democratic party, rather than any change in public morals.

Lincoln the Heckler

Lincoln-Douglass.jpgThe first true election debates were probably the ones held between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglass over the Illinois senate seat. In fact, those debates are famous today partly because such spectacles were extremely rare. Debates hadn’t actually been planned as a part of the race. Rather, Lincoln managed to cajole Douglass into them by showing up at all of the incumbent’s speaking engagements and peppering him with questions (read: heckling) from the audience. The ensuing series captured the imagination of audiences in Illinois and around the country and drew huge crowds. Of course, all this was more than a little ironic, since the audiences had absolutely nothing to do with which candidate won the election. At the time, senators were still appointed by state legislatures, as per the original draft of the Constitution. By simply bringing their views to the public at large, Lincoln and Douglass were accused of violating the spirit of the country’s founding document.

But in the end, the candidates (or, at least, Lincoln) had the last laugh. Although the Illinois State Legislature opted not to appoint the young upstart to the Senate, the debates made him a national celebrity and gave him the recognition and credibility to win the presidency (without debating anybody) two years later.

TV Kills the Radio Star

During the 20th century, presidential debates became more acceptable, but still not very common. Some election years they’d happen. Some they wouldn’t. And the public really didn’t pay a lot of attention. That started to change in 1948, when Thomas Dewey faced off against Harold Stassen in a radio broadcast debate for the Republican nomination. The first televised debate famously came in 1960, showing a poised, handsome John F. Kennedy squaring off against a sweaty, flustered Richard Nixon and giving the first hint at how image would influence future elections. However, it took a few years for the public and networks to catch on—televised presidential debates didn’t become a regular feature of election seasons until 1976.

This passage was written by Maggie Koerth-Baker and excerpted from the mental_floss book 'In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything.' You can pick up a copy here.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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