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A Brief History of Political Halloween Masks (and What They Tell Us About the Election)

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You can't visit a Halloween store without seeing the vinyl visages of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Dressing up as the incumbent president on October 31 dates back to the 1960s at least, though some beloved political figures, like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, have been imitated long after their administrations. Debating whether to dress up as your favorite presidential candidate this year? Read more about political Halloween masks before you cast your vote.

1. The Election Before the Election

Most Halloween masks are produced overseas in January or February, so costume companies have to predict which candidates will face off long before the primaries. Scott Morris, owner of Morris Costumes, the world's largest costume wholesaler, started placing orders for this year's festivities back in November 2011.

The same guesswork has to be done when predicting the year's "it" costumes: Morris studies upcoming blockbusters and animated features, including the directorial and star power behind the films, to place the next year's order. "The good thing about political masks is that you know you can keep selling the elected president's mask for at least four years," Morris says. "You just hope you bought more of the right one."

2. But Don't Worry, Someone Will Buy That John Kerry Mask

Even if a costume company makes a mistake and overbuys an unpopular political mask, there's a special place where someone will buy anything. And that place is called the Internet. "I don't get it. I don't know what people could possibly be doing with them," says Morris. "But there's a buyer for everything in this world." 

3. Not All Presidents Have Mask Appeal

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Political masks are especially popular in an election year, but not all presidential masks are equally popular. Even decades after Watergate, most Americans have seen a Richard Nixon mask. A customer recently asked Morris where he could purchase a John F. Kennedy mask. (Psst! Here are a few on eBay.) But no one wants to trick or treat dressed up like Gerald Ford.

Mask appeal is partly a combination of being physically distinct and fun to caricature. It also comes from staying in the spotlight. An outgoing personality—or even a scandal—is a great way to keep your likeness on sale at a costume store. "I'll be selling Bill Clinton masks for the next 30 or 40 years!" Morris says.

Sometimes Halloween glory isn't just for the commander-in-chief. First Lady Michelle Obama and former First Lady Hillary Clinton both have their own masks. Soft-spoken former First Lady Laura Bush was left out of the fun.

(Interesting tidbit: Political masks of women don't sell as well as those of men for a few reasons. One reason is that there just aren't as many female politicians or masks of them. Another is that women very rarely wear Halloween masks, which even Morris admits aren't the most comfortable accessory.)

4.The Spectacle Is Political

We wondered if Halloween partygoers in this divisive political climate are more likely to dress up as candidates they love or hate. Morris believes that most people dress up as politicians they love, despite the fact that Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein masks have been popular in recent decades. A recent Psychology Today story posits that adults are "more likely to wear masks that convey fear than admiration."

Either way, dressing up as a politician shows an emotional investment in that person. "Halloween is transgressive at its heart, so it's the perfect holiday for political satire," says Lesley Bannatyne, author of Halloween Nation: Behind the Scenes of America's Fright Night.

Because costume companies need lead time for production, they can't immediately react to the most topical political gaffes come late October. Fortunately, creative revelers can. "I counted 63 shotgun-toting Sarah Palins at the 2008 NYC Village Halloween parade," Bannatybe says. "I expect to see endangered Big Birds and binders full of women this year."

5. An American Masktime

Though a quick Internet search yields masks of the British royals and former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Morris says that political Halloween masks stay national. After all, who wants to have to explain his mask to people who aren't well-versed in foreign affairs? Certainly not the guy at the haunted house trying to pick up the woman dressed as sexy Eleanor Roosevelt. It stands to reason that Americans are most focused on who's going to run their home country, and buyer behavior at Halloween stores may be as accurate as the polls. According to the national chain Spirit Halloween, mask sales have accurately predicted the winning presidential candidate for every election since 1996. As of last month, Obama had a comfortable 64-36% sales lead. (Of course, that was before his disastrous performance in the first debate.)
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Here's a question for international readers: Do people in your country dress up as politicians for Halloween, too?

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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