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My Night at the Caucus

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My first caucus experience was pretty awesome. Although I might be a little biased, since I'm for Obama and he did extremely well in Iowa. But that aside, it was just really cool to see people "“ especially people my age, who historically have been rather blasé about elections "“ out there caucusing and making themselves heard. I was impressed.

To be honest, going into the caucus, I didn't really know what to expect. What I didn't expect, though, was to go to the wrong caucus location and then have to run across a field of snow in heels. Let me explain. Theodore Roosevelt High School "“ they're called the Rough Riders, which always entertains me "“ is back-to-back with Hubbell Elementary School. Both schools were caucus locations. We thought they were connected so we could walk through Roosevelt and get to Hubbell without walking outside. Wrong. By the time we figured this out, it was about ten minutes to seven. That's when the doors close "“ anyone who hasn't made it inside their caucus location by seven p.m. sharp isn't allowed to caucus. So, we spotted Hubbell across a field of snow from Roosevelt. We decided to make a run for it, despite the fact that I was wearing open-toed heels (which I shouldn't have been wearing because of my swollen toe anyway"¦ I am an idiot) and the snow was a good foot deep.

harkin.jpgAnyway, we made it with about two minutes to spare. For those of you unfamiliar with the caucus process, this is how it went "“ at least for the Democrats. Republicans caucus a bit differently. After assembling in the location for your precinct (ours was in the gym), we listened to a speech. The speaker varies from location to location - ours was from Senator Tom Harkin (pictured). Then a representative for each candidate had 60 seconds to make a last-minute pitch for their candidate to convince people who hadn't made up their minds yet.

Then came the real caucusing. Everyone had 10 minutes to assemble in the designated spot in the gym for their candidate. Each candidate was allowed just one campaign sign to mark their area.

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Now 10 minutes might sound like a lot of time to assemble, but we had 444 people caucusing, plus observers, plus press all crammed into a relatively small elementary school gym. Maneuvering did take a little time and effort. Oh, and the press wasn't allowed to interact with the caucus-goers until after the caucus. By the way, 444 is significantly higher than the 279 people that showed up from my precinct to caucus four years ago, so yay precinct 49!!

So, with everyone in the spots for their chosen candidates, and with undeclared and independents in the middle of the gym, the counting started. If a candidate didn't have 15 percent of the room (67 people in this case) in their section, he/she was not considered viable. The people in that candidate's corner had to choose another candidate.

Here's what happened in the first round at my precinct. The first part of the first round was kind of unofficial "“ each group counts for themselves and lets the person running the caucus know what their numbers were. The unofficial count was:

Barack Obama - 168 people.
John Edwards - 81 people.
Hillary Clinton - 67 people.
Bill Richardson - 54 people.
Joe Biden - 45 people.
Dennis Kucinich - 12 people.
Chris Dodd - 11 people.
Six people were undecided.

So then everyone had five minutes to convince the undecided people to join them (or to get decided people to switch sides). There was lots of yelling and chanting going on "“ it seriously sounded like a cheerleading competition. I wouldn't have been entirely surprised if caucus-goers had started forming pyramids and doing basket tosses.

After five minutes, the official first count was taken. This was counted out loud for the whole room to hear. The official first round numbers were:

Obama "“ 175
Edwards "“ 87
Clinton "“ 69
Richardson "“ 63
Biden "“ 51

By this point, all of the Dodd and Kucinich folks had switched to another candidate since they knew there was no way their candidate would be counted as viable.

Then there was another five minutes of yelling and convincing and cheerleading. Apparently during this time period, the Richardson people convinced some others to switch to their side, so a quick, unofficial recount was done. Richardson now had 67, Biden now had 42. I guess some people left or were in the bathroom or something, because by my count that's only 440 people.

So, then it was time for the official final count, which was done out loud for the whole room to hear again. The official final count was:

Obama "“ 194
Edwards "“ 97
Clinton "“ 75
Richardson "“ 69

Those ended up being the four viable candidates from our precinct. Richardson was a bit of an anomaly, because he only won two percent of Iowa as a whole "“ that means in most precincts, he wasn't viable at all.

Each candidate gets delegates based on the number of people that caucused for them in that precinct. From ours, Obama got 4.3 delegates, Edwards got 2.1 delegates, Clinton got 1.6 delegates and Richardson got 1.5 delegates. Those delegates then go on to basically caucus again at the county level. The same process will happen and then the delegates from the county caucus will go on to the state caucus. Then the state caucus delegates will go on to the nationals.

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So, that's the whole process! We headed to the Obama after party in downtown Des Moines after that. That's where I saw the Obamalac. I had to get a picture of that, of course.

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Anyway, despite trudging around in the snow with my broken toe, I had a great time. It was a very educational experience and I just loved seeing people who were so passionate about their candidates and causes.

What do you guys think about the Iowa caucuses? Any New Hampshire-ites gearing up for the caucuses? Michiganers, Floridians?? Let's hear it!

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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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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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