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5 Election Day Superstitions

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Just like athletes before a big game, politicians and their camps often have superstitions leading up to big elections.

1. Obama Shoots Hoops

As a big basketball fan, it’s no surprise that Obama likes to hit the hardwood when he can find the time. And there's one day when finding time is absolutely necessary: Election Day. “We made the mistake of not playing basketball once. I can assure you we will not repeat that,” Obama aide Robert Gibbs told the Chicago Sun-Times, referring to the 2008 New Hampshire primary that Hillary Clinton won.

The President worked yesterday’s game in at the Hope Athletic Center in Chicago and called in a little extra help: former Chicago Bulls superstar Scottie Pippen. Pippen was on Obama’s team. They won.

2. James Carville Grosses Out Wife Mary Matalin

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Democratic analyst James Carville had a rather stinky habit when he was the lead strategist during Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. When things seemed to be going well, Carville would refuse to change underwear for several days just to make sure the luck held. He later claimed that although he wore the same pair every day, they visited the washing machine every night.

3. John McCain Catches a Flick

In 2008, McCain’s daughter Meghan told People magazine about her dad’s somewhat surprising superstition: “He always goes to a movie on election day. He usually goes in the early afternoon.”

But that wasn’t the only trick up McCain’s sleeve. He also carried around a lucky penny, nickel, quarter, compass, and feather. He wore lucky rubber-soled L.L. Bean dress shoes and counted on a “lucky food”—barbeque—before every debate. McCain’s strategist said it was in keeping with “the ancient tradition of slaughtering the hog before slaughtering the opponent.”

4. William McKinley’s Flower Power

Nucky Thompson’s got nothing on William McKinley. When McKinley won a Congressional seat in his home state of Ohio in 1876, he was wearing a red carnation. It became his lucky charm after that, one that he thought held luck not only for himself, but anyone he gave it to. McKinley had just given the carnation to a 12-year-old girl named Myrtle moments before he was fatally shot in 1901. Might history have taken a different turn if he had kept his lapel decor? We’ll never know.

5. No Swearing-In on Sundays

Even after they’re elected, some Presidents won’t give up the habits that got them there. In 1849, incoming President Zachary Taylor was scheduled to be sworn in on Sunday, March 4. Believing Sunday to be a holy day, Taylor refused. His vice president, Millard Fillmore, was likewise not sworn in that day. Since James K. Polk’s official last day was Saturday, March 3, some believe that President pro tempore David Atchison was technically president for one day—March 4. Taylor was sworn in on March 5.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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