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Why Does Puerto Rico Get A Primary?

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This weekend, you'll be hearing a lot about a tiny, out-of-the-way place that normally has to get hit by a natural disaster to get our attention. Such is the wonder and magic of primary season.

I'm not talking about some quiet town in the middle of Tornado Alley, though. On June 1, all eyes are on Puerto Rico, the small Caribbean island that will send 63 delegates to the Democratic National Convention, even though its residents don't get to vote in the general election.

What gives?

In November's general election, only residents of the 50 states (and, since the 23rd amendment, the District of Columbia) get to vote. The primaries, however, are run by state and local governments, and caucuses are run privately by political parties. Since Puerto Rico has a local government and political parties, both events are fair game, and residents of Puerto Rico participate in the nominating process of both major parties and send delegates to each party's national convention. Other organized territories like Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands do the same.

What else do Puerto Ricans get to do? Here's a quick history lesson.

All the land that is part of the U.S. but isn't part of a state, the District of Columbia or assigned to a Native Nation has historically been designated as a territory. The modern generic term for these regions is insular area (which is also applied to freely associated states), since territory is now more narrowly defined by the federal government as an insular area under the jurisdiction of the United States. These territories can be"¦

incorporated (under the jurisdiction of the United States, over which Congress has determined that the United States Constitution is to be applied to the local governments and residents in the same way it is applied to those of the states)...


unincorporated (under U.S. jurisdiction, over which Congress has determined that only select parts of the U.S. Constitution apply)...

...and may also be...

organized (where Congress has explicitly granted self-government through an Organic Act, which normally includes provisions for the establishment of a Bill of Rights for the territory and the framework of a three-branched government)...


unorganized (without direct authorization of self-government)...

"¦and all of them can put "Made in the U.S.A." on their products.

Today, the U.S. has only one incorporated territory—the Palmyra Atoll, which is owned by The Nature Conservancy and managed by the Department of the Interior. Among our numerous unincorporated territories, Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands hold the status of "commonwealth."* This means "a self-governing, autonomous political unit voluntarily associated with the United States"). This term doesn't seem to have any significance beyond labeling them as one type of unincorporated, organized territory and is mainly a matter of politics. It comes from the English translation of Puerto Rico's official name (Commonwealth of Puerto Rico). A literal translation of its name in Spanish, "Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico" would have been "Associated Free State of Puerto Rico," and since it actually isn't in a Compact of Free Association with the U.S., "Commonwealth" was substituted.

So what does all that mean for Puerto Rico? Well, among other things"¦

puerto-rico.jpg"¢ Puerto Ricans are statutory U.S. citizens. They're eligible for Social Security benefits, can receive federal welfare and serve in the armed forces.

"¢ Most sections of the Internal Revenue Code don't apply there. Residents don't pay federal income taxes unless they do business with the federal government or run a business that sends funds to the U.S.. All residents do, however, pay other federal taxes like payroll taxes (social security and Medicare) and import/export taxes.

"¢ United States federal law is applicable to Puerto Rico.

"¢ They are not represented by a U.S. Representative or Senator, but by a Resident Commissioner in the U.S. House of Representatives who has the right of voice and can vote in the Committee of the Whole, but does not have a full House Vote.

"¢ Puerto Ricans residing in the United States have all the rights and privileges associated with residing in a state.

*To anyone living in the Commonwealths of Virginia, Kentucky, Massachusetts or Pennsylvania who might be concerned about territorial status and voting eligibility: Don't worry. You live in a regular State that simply decided to refer to itself as a commonwealth a long time ago as a matter of political theory. The Kentucky state government's website, for example, says that at the time Kentucky was petitioning for statehood, the term meant that "all power was vested in and derived from an equally free and independent people rather than a hierarchical and/or feudal system under a king." It was a way of saying that the people were running the government, and not the other way around.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]