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11 Pictures Politicians Wish Were Never Taken

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This morning, subscribers to our newsletter read the story of our wildly embarrassing photo shoot in Central Park. Here's the short version: mental_floss has a book coming out next year called BE AMAZING "“ a how-to guide with tips on tasks like starting your own country and traveling through time. The publisher wants a publicity photo of founding _flossers Will and Mangesh, who had a few different ideas for poses. I did not write a word of this book. But since Will lives in Birmingham, I was his stunt double. So Mangesh and I donned Boy Scout outfits "“ including neckerchiefs and green cut-off pants "“ and the resulting pictures will probably keep my future kids from attending decent colleges.

On the bright side, because slipping into a Boy Scout disguise behind a tree in a public park was actually part of my job, these photos can't get me fired. Plus, I have no political ambitions. But many a politician has been stung by the regrettable photo. Our research editor Kara Kovalchik found eleven examples of pictures politicians wish were never taken.

Jimmy Carter and the Killer Swamp Rabbit


Rabbit.jpgThe year was 1979 "“ not a great one for Jimmy Carter. There was an Energy Crisis and a Crisis of Confidence. And a lesser-known Crisis involving swamp rabbits. From The New York Times: "A 'killer rabbit' penetrated Secret Service security and attacked President Carter on a recent trip to Plains, Ga., according to White House staff members who said that the President beat back the animal with a canoe paddle."

Carter backed off the whole "beat the animal with a paddle" part, explaining that he merely splashed water on the (killer) creature. He ordered a print of the photo, and later an enlargement, to prove his killer rabbit story. "It just played up the Carter flake factor," Carter biographer Douglas Brinkley recalled. "I mean, he had to deal with Russia and the Ayatollah and here he was supposedly fighting off a rabbit." News of the Odd has more.

Read on to see Gerald Ford battle the stairs, the downfall of Gary Hart and Michael Dukakis, and a few improbable handshakes.

Gerald Ford and the Slippery Stairs


Despite being a college football star, and a gifted athlete throughout his life, this photo left the public with a very different impression of his balance. Here, Gerald Ford does his best impression of Chevy Chase doing his best impression of Gerald Ford, courtesy of UT-Austin.

Gary Hart and the Challenge to Reporters

GaryHart.jpgOn Sunday, May 3, 1987, the Miami Herald published a story claiming "Miami Woman is Linked to Hart." That same weekend, E.J. Dionne had a profile of the then- frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in The New York Times Magazine, which included this infamous challenge by Hart: "Follow me around. I don't care. I'm serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They'd be very bored."

Soon after, the Herald received this photo, which would later appear in the National Enquirer. It was taken aboard a boat hilariously named Monkey Business. Look closely and you'll see "Monkey Business Crew" written on Hart's shirt. He withdrew from the race on May 8th, only to re-enter in December. After receiving only 4% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, he called it quits for good.

Hart flirted with re-running for President in 2004. The "Miami Woman" was Donna Rice, who went on to write a book called Kids Online: Protecting Your Children in Cyberspace.

Eight more memorable shots...


Serial killer John Wayne Gacy, active in his local Democratic Party, shaking hands with future First Lady Rosalynn Carter. And we've all seen this Donald Rumsfeld-Saddam Hussein greeting from 1983.

At left, the Nixon/Presley Summit of 1970, after Elvis requested he be appointed "Federal Agent-at-Large" in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. At right, John Kerry during a 2004 visit to NASA, which reminded many people of...


...1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis cruising around in a tank. That wasn't nearly as embarrassing as Washington's Mayor Marion Barry, who was caught on tape smoking crack with a prostitute. But after six months in jail, Barry was re-elected "“ first to the city council, then to a second stint as Mayor.

And finally, any discussion of embarrassing photos can't leave out our current Commander in Chief...particularly this first chestnut of the Prez shocking German Chancellor Angela Merkel with a surprise backrub at the G8 Summit "“ a friendly gesture that took on a life of its own in cyberspace.

What other regrettable political photos are out there? Let us know and we'll do a sequel. Also, if you're interested in receiving our weekly newsletter, the sign-up box is in the left-hand navigation.


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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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Opening Ceremony
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:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


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]