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C-SPAN Uncensored: Washington's Dirty Mouths and Minds

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This whole Larry Craig sex sting story, followed by the one about federal prosecutor trying to have sex with a five-year-old got me to thinking about depravity in Washington. For better or for worse "“ well, really just for worse "“ our politicians seem to be a pretty obscene bunch. They drink like frat boys on spring break (and then sometimes drive), they cuss like they're in a Quentin Tarantino movie and fight like schoolyard enemies. All while running the country.

As it turns out, we just missed out on a Congressional brawl in August. Things started getting testy in the House over the delaying tactics the Republicans had been using on some bills. Jesse L. Jackson, a Democrat from Illinois, shouted that Republicans couldn't be trusted, which set off Lee Terry, a Nebraska Republican. Terry shouted back "Shut up," which was immediately trumped by Jackson, who started dropping F-bombs all over the place and asked Terry if they should take it outside. Luckily for Terry, some of their colleagues intervened; that's Jackson on the left in the kung-fu getup.

John McCain, a salacious novel, and the biggest beating in the history of Congress all after the jump!

Jackson's not the only one with the dubious distinction of having said the mother of all curse words in Congress. We all remember when Dick Cheney famously told Patrick Leahy to "f* off," a move that Cheney would later say made him "feel better." John McCain also used the f-word in the chambers last spring, only compounding the problems with his campaign. When Texas Republican John Cornyn criticized McCain for taking too much time off for campaigning, McCain simply replied "f* you," landing him in hot water.lynne-cheney.jpg

This Slate quiz also has some insights in how dirty politicians minds can be. It's got some raunchy passages of "literature" written by people in Washington that you wouldn't want to ever think of as writing porn (Lynne Cheney!).

The granddaddy of Washington dirty mouths, though, belongs to our 36th president, Lyndon Johnson. The Texas native (that already explains a lot) was famous for his outspokenness and often rash language. Probably more famous, though, was his penis, which is sometimes attributed to bringing us the slang Johnson. He was fond of skinny dipping during diplomatic meetings, as he felt his legendary genitals would establish dominance. He didn't like interrupting meetings while he was in the bathroom, so he would often just leave the door open and let anybody watch. My personal favorite anecdote (and the most telling of any from Washington), though, comes from a meeting Johnson held with reporters about Vietnam. He was repeatedly asked why American troops were fighting there and his patience wore thin. He finally snapped, unzipped his fly, whipped it out and declared, "This is why."

sumner brooks.jpgOf course, just to show that it isn't modern politics that results in coarse words and fisticuffs, one of the best old-time brawls was between Preston Brooks and Charles Sumner, which tops the list of the Senate's black eyes. Sumner was a big advocate for equality and put a lot of effort into freeing slaves. At issue during the fight was the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opponents saw as basically bending to the South. Sumner railed against it, but instead of attacking the act itself, he took aim at its authors. He called Stephen Douglas from Illinois Don Quixote and likened South Carolina's Andrew Butler to Sancho Panza. Less laughable, though, were his assaults on Butler's speech defect (which was caused by a heart condition) and his extended metaphor about slavery being Butler's mistress. Those personal assaults upset fellow South Carolina senator Preston Brooks, who also happened to be Butler's nephew. Two days later, in an almost empty Senate chamber, Brooks approached Sumner with a little entourage and denounced his speech as "libel." Then he beat Sumner with a cane until he had broken both it and Sumner. Brooks became a hero in the South, while Sumner ended up taking a three-year break from the Senate as he recovered from the head injuries.

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