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Those crazy candidates!

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Still a year and a half til the US presidential election, and the internet is already littered with campaign sites. Besides the declared major party candidates, there are unofficial websites for candidates who aren't running but may conceivably change their minds, like Al Gore, and Condoleezza Rice. There are also campaigns to draft candidates who don't want the job, fringe candidates who haven't got a chance, and fictional characters who are running for president. There are even two guys on my blogroll who have announced their candidacy!

Florida humorist Dave Barry runs for president in every election, despite never actually getting on a ballot in any state. 2008 will be no exception. His campaign website hasn't been updated for the 2008 campaign yet, but its just a matter of time, as he has now his first endorsement. Already, bumper stickers are available. Notice the bumper sticker does not specify which election, so its recyclable.

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When the Christopher Walken for President 2008 website went up last year, a lot of people thought it was real. It looks real. You can even buy a t-shirt. The press release explained that "there would be relatively minimal publicity at this early stage," due to Walken's contracted film production schedule. In a world where Arnold Schwarzeneggar is a governor, Ronald Reagan became president, and Al Franken is running for senate, Christopher Walken would be a believable candidate you could get behind. Alas, Walken himself has no plans to run, and had nothing to do with the website.

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Bill Gates has billions of dollars, a foundation formed to save the world, and a corporation full of geeks to invent toys he can play with. Why would he want to be president? He doesn't. The site Bill Gates for President admits that Gates isn't interested in getting involved in politics, but also states that "this website will probably never change Bill's mind, but we feel we have the right to try."

More potential candidates, pseudo-candidates, and fictional candidates after the jump.

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Jeff Bridges for President is an online petition to draft the Big Lebowski actor into the election. Bridges played a US president in the 2000 movie The Contender. Although the petition has been online since 2005, there are only 86 signatures so far.

 

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In his book Dude, Where's My Country? Michael Moore described the perfect presidential candidate: Oprah Winfrey. He has a draft petition site where you can add your name. The Oprah Winfrey for President movement is made up of fans who think she'd be a great choice. They've even got a theme song! The problem is that Oprah doesn't want to have anything to do with them.

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The Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert campaign website features a petition drive, but neither candidate appears to need an arm-twist to get them to run. Their slogan: Trust and Truthiness.

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Cthulhu is a monster from H.P. Lovecraft's book The Call of Cthulhu, described as "humanity's most basic nightmare". This fictional character has a presidential campaign at The Home Page for Evil. Campaign slogan: Why vote for a lesser evil?

 

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Another science fiction candidate is General Zod. Zod, best known as Superman's nemesis, has a platform that includes the end to the war in Iraq, universal healthcare, and corporate reform. He also pledges to disband Congress and the Supreme Court because they are so meddlesome. All he asks for is your tribute, your lives, and your vote. I-Mockery has a Help Zod page and a merchandise page.

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Ackbar, a rebel alliance leader in Star Wars, was endorsed early by the Llama Butchers. If support builds, we may see a website soon.

There are surely more candidates out there, and more to come before November, 2008. If you are over 35 years old and a natural-born US citizen, you can run for president. Winning, on the other hand, is very difficult.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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