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8 Rejected Supreme Court Justices

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With the Supreme Court ending its 2007-08 term, we thought this week was a good time to answer some questions you probably weren't asking (but will nonetheless find interesting). All week, the honorable David Holzel will be presiding.

Who are the coulda-been nominees?
Since George Washington nominated the first batch of justices, the Senate has confirmed all but 34 of 156 nominations. (Washington, first in everything, is the president with the most nominations confirmed "“ 12, two of whom declined to serve. But even he had two rejected. John Tyler holds the record as the president with the most nominations rejected "“ 8.)

In our time, the most famous rejected nominee is Robert H. Bork, a legal scholar and U.S. Court of Appeals judge with a long paper trail of conservative opinions. Nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1987, Bork could have tilted the Court decisively to the right. As a known quantity, he was an easy target for liberal opponents, who organized a campaign against him. He was rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee after 12 days of hearings.

"Oh degraded Country! How humiliating to the friends of moral virtue "“ of religion and of all that is dear to the lover of his Country!" the New-York Gazette Advertiser wailed over President James Madison's nomination of Alexander Wolcott, in 1811. "Wolcott's strong enforcement of the controversial embargo and non-intercourse acts while a U.S. collector of customs had cost him support in the press and the Senate. His qualifications for becoming a justice also were questioned," according to the CRS Report for Congress. The Senate turned him down by a 9-24 vote, the widest rejection in Supreme Court history.

225px-Roger_Taney.jpgRoger B. Taney (pronounced tawny) is largely remembered as the chief justice who handed down the Dred Scott decision in 1857. With his sepulchral countenance, Taney is inextricably linked to the grim ruling that all blacks -- slaves as well as free -- were not and could never become citizens of the United States. But when President Andrew Jackson nominated him in 1835 as associate justice, opposition Whigs were still smarting from Taney's removing government deposits from the Second Bank of the United States, while a recess-appointed secretary of the treasury. The Senate voted to indefinitely postpone the nomination. But after Chief Justice John Marshall died in 1836, Jackson sent Taney's name up again. He was confirmed, this time as chief justice.

You might think the Senate just couldn't stomach elevating to the highest court in the land a man with the name Ebenezer Hoar. But it seems the senators were offended by something other than aesthetics. As President Ulysses S. Grant's attorney general, Hoar had insisted on rewarding merit rather than political loyalty, thus blocking a well trod route for patronage. So when Grant nominated Hoar to the Court in 1869, miffed Republican senators gave the virtuous Hoar thumbs down.

A senator has the right to reject a court nomination simply because the nominee is from the senator's home state. Upon this invocation of "senatorial courtesy" rests the demise of Wheeler Hazard Peckham and William B. Hornblower. Both men were nominated by President Grover Cleveland. Both nominees were New Yorkers, and New York Sen. David Hill invoked senatorial courtesy to squelch their nominations in 1894. (Peckham's brother, Rufus Wheeler Peckham, became a justice in 1896.)

douglas-ginsberg.jpgSome nominees withdrew themselves from consideration before they could be rejected. Such was the case of Harriet Miers, whom President George W. Bush nominated in 2005, but withdrew under criticism that she was unqualified. Another withdrawal was that of Douglas Ginsburg (pictured, and not related to current justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg), the conservative, former pot-smoking federal appellate judge who is a footnote in the Bork saga. After Bork was Borked, Reagan mooted the more moderate Anthony Kennedy for the seat. But Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) threatened a filibuster. So Reagan turned right again and proposed Ginsburg. Embarrassingly, there was no getting around the revelation that Ginsburg had inhaled. Ginsburg withdrew himself from consideration, Reagan put forward Kennedy and the Senate, eager to move on, easily confirmed him.

Yesterday: What was Marbury v. Madison? And who were Roe & Wade?

David Holzel is a freelance writer who writes the ezine The Jewish Angle.
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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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May 23, 2017
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