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Greg Veis, YouTube Hunter: Election Day Edition

Some people call it Election Day; I call it Christmas. Network news anchors nattering on with hardly anything substantive to report for hours, until they spin into the Realm of the Truly Weird around 1 a.m.; endless refreshes on Talking Points Memo, Drudge, and Mystery Pollster; breathless phone calls to anyone who shares my excitement about the likely outcome of Arizona's Eighth District -- yeah, I'll say it: better than sex.

Why? Because Election Day, like coitus, is all about the build-up, and Midterms '06 have been marked with a red circle on many a political junkie's calendar since November 2, 2004. We -- the few, the moderately proud, the socially awkward -- have been pouring over poll data for months, and before there were polls, or even challengers, we were acting as if each event in the news cycle brimmed with the significance of the cosmos.

And have no doubt: YouTube has been instrumental in feeding this obsession. Advertisements and gaffes, speeches and slurs... they have found an immediate and permanent home on the website -- and the political process has been permanently changed for it. (Whether that's a good thing or not is an open question I might address in the future, but, for now, this is a place to start.) So, now, let's recap the midterm that was by scanning through the video clips that had the most impact on this, our first YouTube election.

Strangest Channeling of a Movie Character for Electoral Gain
Easy: David Strathairn, as Edward R. Murrow, in support of House challenger Kristen Gillibrand.

I don't find the ad to be effective -- a little too put-on for my taste -- but this other ad for Gillibrand's campaign (although not by her campaign) is a classic, mocking her opponent's appearance at a recent Union College frat party. (Awesome photographic evidence of that, too. Check out the guy ripping a jay-bird in the top right):

Most Emotionally Fraught Issue
Embryonic stem cell research. Of course, this issue brought us Michael J. Fox's advertisements, which were the most visually arresting of the cycle. No amount of FX wizardry could match the gut-punch of watching him writhe uncontrollably while expressing his support for certain Democratic candidates. One last time, here he is supporting Ben Cardin in Maryland (and note how he explicitly references George W. Bush, something he wasn't able to do for Claire McCaskill in the redder state of Missouri):

This, however, is a very effective counterpunch from the campaign of Cardin's opponent, Michael Steele, who might just pull off an upset victory today. Keep an eye out...

The last ad I'll show that hits on stem cell research is different in that it employs actors spelling out hypothetical situations -- but it's no less powerful.

Most Incendiary Advertisement
Yep, the race-baiting ad the RNC ran against Harold Ford in Tennessee, which reminded some people of the GOP's infamous "Southern Strategy:"

In fairness, though, Ford cut an ad of his own that was so blatant in its religiousness (it's in a church, for chrissakes!) that, had a Republican aired it, all of Cambridge, Mass., would've put down their lattes as one and posted nasty, hateful things on their blogs:

Most Thematically Disjointed Campaign Promise
That would have to go to Cruz Bustamante, running for Insurance Commissioner of California. Let's get this straight, Cruz: because you ran in a marathon and lost weight, you're going to lower insurance rates. Riiiight...

Pol Whose Reputation Was Most Irrevocably Damaged By YouTube
George Allen, senator and former governor of Virginia, and, until recently, a leading contender for the 2008 Republican nomination for president. Until recently, you say? Yeah, largely due to YouTube, Mr. Macacawitz is a joke. Here's how our favorite $1.6 billion website took down a political heavyweight: in May, Ryan Lizza with The New Republic wrote a piece examining Allen's predilection for most things Dixie, despite a childhood spent on the tony edge of the west coast. Then, this happened...

... and then people came out of the woodwork saying that he used to drop the N-word into casual conversation, and then he said in a televised debate that asking if his mother was Jewish was tantamount to "making aspersions," and now, it looks as if he might lose to Jim Webb today. And even if he does manage to hang on, his future has dimmed significantly. The lesson to future campaigns? As this article persuasively argues: don't let YouTube clips reinforce previously held negative beliefs about a candidate. Easier said than done... especially when your pol is as skilled of a gaffe machine as Senator Allen.

Pol Whose Star Has Risen Almost Exclusively Because of YouTube's Influence
YouTube doesn't discriminate based on factual certainty or moral clarity; it's a place where those who speak in the highest volumes reach more eyeballs than they could've ever hoped to before. Which brings us to North Carolina Republican House challenger Vernon Robinson. He's been mentioned in this column before, and whew doggie, is he a nut. But before YouTube, he would've been a nut confined to the North Carolina 12th; now, he's raked in a pretty penny from outside his district and has become something of a cult hero because of hyperbolic and factually dubious ads like this:

Yet YouTube has its own internal fact-checking mechanisms as well, and this one, spearheaded most improbably by Sean Hannity, is a joy to watch:

Most Enjoyable Campaign Ad (Intellectual Dishonesty Category)
In this ad attacking House candidate Michael Arcuri, the National Republican Congressional Committee suggests that, well, just watch...

Hot, right? A little strange for the GOP to be showing something so racy given their frequent suggestions that smut like this is hurting our "American values?" Sure, but I like silhouetted naked chicks as much the next guy. Problem is, the phone call in question was a single misdial (by a single number) that cost New York taxpayers -- wait for it -- a buck and a quarter.

Strangest Apologies
No shortage here, this being the year of Mark Foley and the "botched joke" -- but these two, from Reps. Thomas Reynolds and Don Sherwood, were particularly striking. Reynolds was accused of sitting on the Foley emails for too long, hoping that they wouldn't put a safe seat in play. Oh, and Sherwood reportedly strangled his mistress during a back massage. This is his apology. Do these come close to being effective? What say you?

Best Ad
Screw real politicians. I'm voting for Jimmy Jones:

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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!

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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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