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He Inspired Jerry Springer (Plus 9 Other Stories About RFK)

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On June 8, 1968, the body of Robert Francis Kennedy was transported by train from New York to Washington. The rolling funeral procession stretched twenty-one cars long and carried over a thousand people. Because of overwhelming crowds along the tracks, a journey that should have lasted four hours took twice as long. In Elizabeth, New Jersey, people jumped onto the northbound tracks to get a closer look. Two were killed. Some estimates put the number of mourners and curious spectators around two million.

Forty years later, the world's fascination with RFK lives on. Here's a look at ten Bobby Kennedy stories you may not have heard.*

1. He worked for Senator Joe McCarthy, and almost had Roy Cohn's job.

Joe Kennedy had asked Senator McCarthy to appoint his son as staff director of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. McCarthy opted instead for Roy Cohn, who had helped convict atomic bomb spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (and would be portrayed by Al Pacino in Angels in America a half-century later). Kennedy was appointed Assistant Counsel in December of 1952, but resigned the following summer. In January of 1954, he rejoined the committee when the Democrats appointed him Minority Counsel.

2. He may have prevented an Indianapolis riot the night Dr. King was killed.


3. He wasn't above a bar fight.

"Shortly after his twenty-first birthday, Kennedy celebrated by buying his first beer. Soon he was buying rounds for everyone in the bar. Some of the patrons began singing 'Happy Birthday' to someone else, and Kennedy, inebriated for the first time in his life, became enraged at their ingratitude. He smashed a beer bottle over one man's head and refused entreaties by [Kenneth] O'Donnell to apologize." [Source]

4. He inspired Jerry Springer (the man, not the show).

Springer met with then New York Senator Robert Kennedy in 1968, and joined the Kennedy campaign. Kennedy's assassination had a profound effect on Springer. According to NBC.com, "That moment in history compelled him to the political action he has never abandoned."

5. He debated Ronald Reagan in 1967.

RFK-Reagan1.jpgOn May 15, 1967, the giants of the left and right met on CBS News. The topic: "The Image of America and the Youth of the World." This debate, which featured questions from students in London, is not mentioned in any of the great Kennedy biographies (well, at least not Robert Kennedy: His Life, Robert Kennedy and His Times or Up Close.)

Newsweek called Reagan the victor: "To those unfamiliar with Reagan's big-league savvy, the ease with which he fielded questions about Vietnam may have come as a revelation." They continued: "Political rookie Reagan...left old campaigner Kennedy blinking when the session ended." According to the National Review, "Kennedy himself conceded defeat to Reagan, telling his aides after the debate to never again put him on the same stage with 'that son-of-a-bitch.' Kennedy was heard to ask immediately after the debate, 'Who the f—- got me into this?' Frank Mankiewitz was that aide, as Kennedy was quick to remind him a few weeks later: 'You're the guy who got me into that Reagan thing.'"

[You can read the complete transcript and score it yourself.]

6. He was the first to climb Mount Kennedy.

mountkennedy.jpgIn 1965, with a three-man team on an excursion sponsored by the National Geographic Society, RFK reached the summit of the 13,000 foot Canadian mountain. He had no previous climbing experience. Up to that point, Mount Kennedy was the highest unclimbed peak in North America. It had been named after President John F. Kennedy earlier that year.

RFK was zinged by his brother Ted in a quote given to The New York Times: "I wish to point out for the record he is not the first Kennedy to climb a mountain. I climbed the Matterhorn in 1957, which is higher, and I didn't need the help of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police."

7. He tried to talk LBJ out of the VP job he'd already accepted.

JFK-LBJ.jpgFrom the PBS.org companion to the RFK American Experience special: "At around 11 a.m. on the day a nominee was to be presented, John Kennedy visited Johnson in his hotel suite and offered him the [VP] job. Robert Kennedy maintained afterward that his brother offered the job to Johnson only as a courtesy, and then felt trapped when he accepted. 'Now what do we do?' the candidate asked, then answered by sending Bobby back to talk Johnson out of it. Around 4 p.m., with tensions running high all around, John Kennedy called Johnson to assure him he was the one. Ignore Bobby, he said, because 'he's been out of touch and doesn't know what's happening.'" [Here's a YouTube montage of awkward moments between RFK and LBJ.]

8. His house was a zoo.

rfkdog.jpgIn August of 1962, The New York Times wrote about Attorney General Kennedy's dog Brumus (not pictured), who was a regular visitor to the Justice Department. "He usually stays at home with the children," Kennedy explained. "But the children are away on vacation and he gets very lonely. So I bring him down here and get pretty girls to take him for walks." The article ended by listing the rest of Kennedy's animal friends: "two other dogs, ponies, horses, geese, a burro, a sea lion (!?), Hungarian pigeons, twenty goldfish, rabbits, turtles and a salamander."

9. He's been portrayed by everyone from Martin Sheen to Andrew McCarthy.

RFKs.jpg

Sheen (The Missiles of October) and McCarthy (TV movie Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis) are just two of many actors to play RFK. IMDb has the complete list, which includes Stephen Culp (Thirteen Days and Norma Jean & Marilyn; he's pictured above), Zeljko Ivanek (TV movie The Rat Pack), John Shea (1983 miniseries Kennedy; Martin Sheen played JFK), and Robert Knepper (The Women of Camelot).

10. He's not forgotten by the social networking crowd.

His 1968 campaign has a MySpace page. RFK Facebook groups include the Bobby Kennedy Fan Club, Bobby Kennedy's Vision, and even a fantasy group called RFK Wins California, Midwest to Defeat Nixon, 283-209. (I'm pretty sure these links will only work for Facebook users.)

*Unless you're a Kennedy buff, or read the slightly longer RFK post from which this was taken.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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