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Tennis Shoes (And Other Election Gimmicks)

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GIMMICK: Action Figures of Speech

Of all the unusual aspects of Jesse Ventura's 1998 Minnesota gubernatorial campaign, perhaps the most successful was the introduction of an action figure in the former pro wrestler's likeness. Voters got their first look at the doll in a campaign commercial featuring little Jesse battling Evil Special Interest Man.

SUCCESS RATE: High. The ad's message definitely struck a chord and helped propel Ventura to victory on election day. He even managed to sell thousands of the figures in stores, with most of the profits going to charity.

IMITATORS TO THE CROWN: Taking the doll ploy a step further, Kinky Friedman promoted his independent run for governor in Texas by selling an action figure that not only looks like him, but also makes wisecracks about the state's political scene.

GIMMICK: Tennis Shoes

patty-murray.jpgWhen Patty Murray protested education budget cuts in the early 1980s, she didn't expect her actions to lead to a seat in the U.S. Senate. But when a Washington state legislator told her she couldn't make a difference because she was "just a mom in tennis shoes," a formidable political career was born. The former preschool teacher's preferred footwear became her trademark as she rose from positions at her local school board to a seat in the state senate and, eventually, to national office in 1992.

SUCCESS RATE: High. The shoe symbolism was so effective that she decorated her Senate office with sneaks and even started an annual Golden Tennis Shoe Award ceremony, which honors everyday people dedicated to change and progress in their communities.

OTHER POLITICAL PLOYS: With a lead in the polls during her most recent campaign, Murray resisted requests for debates. Instead, she reduced her opponent's tactics to publicity stunts, including staging a mock debate against an empty pair of tennis shoes. She won the election handily and is now Washington state's senior senator.

GIMMICK: Playing the Pet Card

No politician has used the pet prop quite as effectively as Vito Battista. Running for a host of offices in New York from the 1950s to the 1980s, Battista frequently made public appearances with a monkey or an alligator in tow. Aside from the obvious shock value they provided, the poor creatures became Battista's teaching aids, helping him make points about politics and belittle his opponents. He even paraded around Manhattan once with a camel and claimed that just one more tax would break its back.

SUCCESS RATE: Mixed. Although his tactics won him seats on the state assembly and city council, they failed to get him elected mayor any of the six times he ran.

OTHER POLITICAL PLOYS: Battista once appeared at a campaign stop wearing nothing but a barrel.

GIMMICK: Axe-ing For Votes

lester-ax.jpgWhen Georgia governor Lester Maddox defied the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it not only boosted his political career, it earned him an ignominious trademark in the process. When Maddox refused to integrate his Atlanta chicken restaurant after the act passed, his supporters wielded axes to turn away black customers. Using the handles as his campaign symbol, Maddox—pictured here signing one—won the Georgia governorship in 1967, defeating future president Jimmy Carter in the Democratic primary.

SUCCESS RATE: Embarrassingly high. Although he lost a subsequent gubernatorial campaign, the popularity of those axe handles endured. He reportedly sold more than 100,000 of them before his death in 2003.

BUT HE PROBABLY WASN'T RE-ELECTED BECAUSE: Once in office, Maddox surprised everyone by passing progressive policies, and hiring and promoting many African-Americans in the state government.

This article was written by Doug Cantor and originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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]