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Guest Blog-star: Show Michael Stusser Some Love!

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Good day! Michael Stusser, here, with another This Day in Blogstery!

gov-HueyLong.jpgAll kinds of important events occurred on this date in history: In 1846, Neptune's moon Triton was discovered by William Lassell (though if we wait long enough, they may both be moons). In 1886, the first dinner jacket was worn to the autumn ball at Tuxedo Park, New York, and no one has ever looked at a penguin in the same way. In 1975, Liz Taylor wed for the 6th time (marrying Richard Burton for the 8th time"¦), In 2006, Google bought YouTube for a cool $1.6 billion. (Why didn't I buy Google stock? WHY!?) And in 1935, George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" opened on Broadway, and American politician and U.S. Senator Huey Long died. I'm sure we'll chat with Mr. Gershwin soon enough (he bit the dust in 1937) but for today, let's concentrate on the always quotable Kingfish. So here's a condensed conversation with Huey from The Dead Guy Interviews. For the full, in-depth interview with Mr. Long, you'll have to buy my book - but it'll be worth it: if not, first round of Mint Juleps are on me!

read the hilarious interview after the jump...


Huey Long (Aug. 30, 1893-Sept. 10, 1935)

51hxFy7FRnL._SS500_1.jpgHuey "Kingfish" Long might not have played by the rules, but he was arguably one of the most skilled politicians in American history. Long grew up on the wrong side of the railroad tracks, then raised hell as governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932 and as U.S. Senator from 1932 to 1935. And although the log cabin he grew up in was three stories high, the Kingfish claimed he knew poverty, so he worked hard to spread the wealth. Long never finished high school, yet found a way to take the bar after only one year at Tulane Law School. Passing the exam with flying colors (he's said to have had a photographic memory), he began a career suing people on behalf of the little man. By age 25, he'd ridden his platform (which bashed Standard Oil) to an appointment on the state railroad commission and then onto the Public Services Commission. After becoming governor of Louisiana in 1928, Long didn't adopt the most standard practices. He started by building a new governor's mansion, then stole, cheated, and manipulated his way to unparalleled power as America's Boss. He also launched his own newspaper, the Louisiana Progress, to which every state employee was "obligated" to have multiple subscriptions. Outraged by his radical calls for welfare legislation, social services, and the redistribution of wealth, foes called him a fascist (after all, it was the era of Mussolini and Hitler)—but Long's constituents didn't care. The Kingfish could deliver the goods. As governor, Long made pork barreling a part of his game, and in doing so, paved 12,000 miles of rural roads, created a law that made textbooks and night classes available to everyone, built free hospitals, and started a program to ensure that there was a school within walking distance of every kid in the state. All the while, he operated like a ruthless dictator, paying off cronies and threatening to crush anyone who got in his way—including federal officials. Playing by his own rules almost got the Kingfish impeached in 1929, but he was never convicted. The hard-to-keep-down type, Long was elected to the U.S. Senate the next year. Of course, that didn't necessarily mean he stopped being governor. He held on to that post until he handpicked a successor, and only after his "helpers" were in control in his home state did he finally resign the governorship and take his Senate seat in Washington in 1932.
Not surprisingly, Long set his sights on the presidency, but he was burdened by an increasing fear of assassination. Sure enough, a month after announcing his candidacy in 1936, he was fatally shot by Dr. Carl Austin Weiss, whose father-in-law (Judge Benjamin Pavy) was one of Long's longtime political opponents. The Kingfish's last words were, "Don't let me die, I have got so much to do."

Michael Stusser: Can I call you Kingfish?

Huey Long: I reckon. The name came from a character on the "Amos "˜n' Andy" radio show, George "Kingfish" Stevens, who ran the Mystic Knights of the Sea.

MS: Lots of labels have been tossed in your direction—communist, buffoon, fascist, Despot of the Delta, Caesar of the Bayou. How would you describe yourself?

HL: Find out for yourself. I wrote an autobiography [Every Man A King] at the tender age of 39. Too much bein' said about me without me sayin' it!

MS: Could you give us the synopsis?

HL: You love the labels, eh? Well, I suppose I'd call myself an anti-corporate populist. But that misses the part about being an innovative, cantankerous, revolutionary rabble-rouser, now doesn't it?

MS: How 'bout dictator?

HL: Dictator? You ever hear of a dictator who widened the base of suffrage in his state? Or repealed a poll tax that kept the little fellow from voting? Dictators do that?

MS: Yeah, but you took control of all the taxation. And you hired all the police and ran the state militia. In fact, in 1934, you used your influence to abolish the local government altogether and make a law that only you could appoint state employees.

HL: Uh huh.

MS: Citizens had no say in what was going on. I'm just sayin', it's kinda like a dictator.

HL: Listen—I messed around a good bit with what went on 'cause Louisiana's loose; things would've gotten out of hand if I hadn't. They came to me with problems, looked to me for leadership, and I gave it to 'em. And let's not forget: When I ran for governor in 1928, I won 93,000 votes; the other guy had 3,700. [It was the largest vote margin in the state's history.]

MS: You loved to campaign, didn't you?

HL: I loved spreadin' my message to the good folks of Louisiana.

MS: Ease up, Kingfish. You're starting to sound like a used-car dealer.

HL: You're lucky I'm dead, boy! Did you hear about the two gents who tried to blackmail me during my Senate campaign?

MS: Yes, Mr. Long. You had them kidnapped until two days after the vote. It's a good example of why opponents hated your methods.

HL: Hey, I learned all those tricks from them when they were tryin' to keep me out. Them corrupt bellyachers used to run the state for themselves. Don't feel real bad for 'em now, do ya?

MS: What did you think about the racial conflict in your state?

HL: There were too many ignorant white people with hatred in their hearts from the Civil War. They didn't want colored folks to go to school, so I opened night schools instead.

MS: And were they part of your other programs?

HL: Hell yes. I'm for the poor man, see? Black people are entitled to homes just like all of us. Got to give 'em clinics, too—keep 'em healthy. I tried to do things for everybody—blacks, whites, don't matter. My issues are power and economics; I'm stayin' out of race and religion. Don't want that fight.

MS: Tell us a little about Hattie Caraway.

HL: Senator Hattie Caraway. She was the first woman to get elected to the Senate, and my own party decided not to support her re-election! I said I'd help her—I liked her ideas—and she won two-to-one. I would've brought Roosevelt down, too, if I'd had the time.

MS: Speaking of Roosevelt, FDR called you one of the most dangerous men in America.

HL: Yep, but he didn't have the nerve to support my best idea.

MS: Which was?

HL: The Share-Our-Wealth program—a national redistribution of fat-cat riches that put caps on incomes and would have confiscated inheritances of more than a million dollars.

MS: It's a wonder that never took hold.

HL: Listen, sonny, my idea was to guarantee an annual income and a homestead to families. If that sounds radical, then I'm radical.

MS: You made a habit of bashing the rich.

HL: Boy, it was 1935. The Great Depression was five years old and there were 10 million unemployed. What should I have done, praised 'em? Rockefeller, Morgan, and the lot "¦ 4 percent of the people owned 85 percent of the wealth! That ain't right.

MS: You once said you'd be happy to leave political life once your dream for America was realized. True?

HL: We'll never know, will we? But I will say this: We're still not even close to bein' there. Alleviating the lot of the dispossessed? Feeding the hungry? Closing the gap between rich and poor? I shoulda been president. The country needs me more than ever.

MS: Do you think the rich had you assassinated?

HL: Naw. Carl [Carl Weiss, the man who fatally shot Long] was just angry I was puttin' his daddy out of a job. [Weiss' father-in-law was a Louisana judge about to be gerrymandered.] But if he hadn't done it, somebody else probably would have.

MS: It's a shame we'll never know what you would have done as president.

HL: Just read My First Days in the White House [published posthumously]. That'll tell you all about it.

MS: Thanks for meeting me, sir. And I love the pajamas. Nice touch.

HL: Come see me in Louisiana anytime. And tell me, how's my favorite city, New Orleans, holding up? Greatest city in the world!

MS: Have a mint julep, sir. In fact, I'll have one, too "¦

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]