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A New Hampshire Primary Primer

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It's primary time!!

Right about now, New Hampshire is an Amsterdam for political hopheads, like the California couple vacationing there not for the ski slopes but just to get their fix of political insanity.

Candidates, both serious and spurious, are crisscrossing the state in an effort to capture the hearts and minds of the more than 500,000 expected voters who will help decide their future "“ John Edwards, who just squeaked past rival Sen. Hillary Clinton to nab the silver in Iowa, is campaigning HuckabeeNH1.jpgfor 36 hours straight in a kind of message marathon. And Republican Mike Huckabee, whose win in Iowa was driven by the state's voting evangelical Christian base and possibly the power of prayer, seems to be relying on the power of Chuck Norris in New Hampshire, trotting the Bearded One out for every conceivable event.

Oh and they are not alone in their hand-shaking and baby-kissing (or making babies cry "“ best headline so far: "Obama makes baby cry").

The candidates are going to have to pull out all the stops (and Chuck Norris) to have a hope in New Hampshire this year. But the real question on everyone's mind (ok, my mind) is exactly how did New Hampshire, a state with little to recommend it besides trees and skiing and nature and stuff, get to be so important in the old political arena?

First, a primary primer

voting_booth.jpg A primary is an election in which voters tell their state's party delegates which candidate to nominate at the party's national convention. Most states that have primaries have binding ones, which mean the state's delegates to the conventions have to cast their vote the candidate their state chooses. A primary is different from a caucus. In a caucus, registered voters of the same party all get together in a room and chitchat about who they want to nominate. Delegates to the convention are selected; the delegates' votes are then divvied up between the candidates based on the number of supporters each candidate eventually wins (read Stacy's report from last week explaining the Iowa Caucus).

Back to primaries: there are basically two kinds of primaries, closed and open. A closed primary means that voting for a candidate to nominate is only open to members of that party. Independents aren't welcome. An open primary means that any registered voter can vote in whichever party's primary they choose.

New Hampshire is the first statewide primary in the country, in which voters cast their ballot for the candidates they believe should receive their state's nomination in each party. It's also open, so everybody's invited.

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Indiana is kicking itself now

New Hampshire's original primary date was supposed to have been the third Tuesday in May of 1916, but was changed to fall on the same day as the monthly town hall meeting, on the second Tuesday. Legislators didn't want to pay to light up the Town Hall twice in one month and Granite Staters are nothing if not frugal. Back then, New Hampshire actually wasn't the first in the country "“ that honor went to Indiana, which, possibly not realizing what it had, switched to a later date in the next primary year. That left pole position number one open for little New Hampshire to seize, which it did, and fiercely.

Granite State legislators may have seen something the rest of the states didn't: the potential for a small state with very little clout to become extremely politically relevant every four years, when it counts the most. It seems to have worked "“ scores of states, especially in this most contentious of elections, have tried to move their caucuses and primaries up to compete with Iowa's caucus and New Hampshire's primary. And each time a state tries, New Hampshire simply moves its primary up.

protect-our-primary-home.gifIt didn't take very long at all for New Hampshire to not only realize the kind of political power they wield in being first, but also to incorporate it deeply into their state identity. In 1975, after several states tried to jockey for the first position, the New Hampshire legislature moved to hold their primary on the Tuesday preceding any other New England state. Two years later, they upped the ante by writing into law that their primary has to occur on the Tuesday before any other state's primary.

And it's not just being first that counts "“ New Hampshire wants to be at least a full week before anyone else: In 1992, Delaware, another small state looking to increase its political clout, started holding its primaries on the Saturday following New Hampshire's. In response, in 1996, New Hampshire decided that it would have to hold its primary a full week before "any other similar election." But Delaware wouldn't budge, so New Hampshire, still miffed, said Delaware's primary didn't constitute a similar election. In the end, New Hampshire won: Out of respect for New Hampshire voters, most Republican candidates that year did not file for the Delaware primary and neither did Democratic incumbent, President Bill Clinton. Delaware gave up and now its primary is on Feb. 5.

How important is it really?

tsongas.jpgHistorically, New Hampshire has been respected as a proving ground for politicians, especially given the extremely high turnout among New Hampshire voters, who take the primary very seriously. Both Presidents Harry Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson ended their respective re-election bids after performing poorly in New Hampshire, seeing it as a sign of things to come. But New Hampshire's accuracy isn't totally absolute, though it had been for a good 40 years. In 1992, Bill Clinton actually came in second to Paul Tsongas in New Hampshire, but went on to gain the Democratic nomination and be president for eight years; he was the first president since 1952 who hadn't won in New Hampshire. In the 2000 primary, Republican Sen. John McCain won the primary, beating George Bush, only to lose momentum everywhere else.

In any case, most pundits are saying New Hampshire is the place where the candidates must make their mark in order to stay politically viable. But the truth is, only time and primaries and caucuses in the 49 other states in the Union will tell.

Any Granite Staters voting today? Care to file a live report?

Linda Rodriguez is an occasional contributor to mental_floss. Her last article looked at the history of celebrity political endorsements.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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