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3 Colorful California Politicians

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When it comes to offbeat political figures, California's history is remarkably rich—and we're not talking about The Governator. While these candidates' philosophies range from obtuse to downright crazy, their campaigns may have caused voters to wonder what the real difference is between politicians and performance artists.

Emperor Norton

The self-proclaimed "His Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I, Protector of Mexico" was born around 1819 in England. While many thought he was a homeless nutcase, Norton was actually celebrated and revered by many of San Francisco's citizens over a twenty-one-year period.

He issued a decree to formally dissolve the United States Congress, and later summoned the U.S. Armed Forces "to proceed with a suitable force and clear the Halls of Congress." Years later, he tried to abolish the Democratic and Republican Parties, and declared that anyone who uttered the word "Frisco" would be guilty of a High Misdemeanor and pay a $25 fine.

The Emperor spent most of his time walking around town dressed in full regalia and sword, inspecting cable cars and making sure the community's affairs were in order. He gained such notoriety and influence that he issued his own currency, which was accepted as legal tender by local businesses. After Norton's death in 1880, a reported 10,000 people turned up at his funeral.

Jello Biafra

Jello-Biafra1.jpgJello Biafra, born Eric Boucher in Boulder, Colorado, is best known as the lead singer of San Francisco's volatile punk pioneers, The Dead Kennedys. Singing into a microphone to make people upset wasn't enough for him, so he made a serious bid for Mayor of San Francisco in 1979.

His platform included an asymmetrical mix of items, ranging from the comical (requiring businessmen to wear clownsuits during business hours, erecting statues of Dan White—who'd assassinated the mayor in 1978—all over the city) to serious proposals to improve the community (banning cars from the city limits and advocating public transportation, legalizing squatting in vacant buildings, requiring the public election of police officers). On one occasion, he showed up at Diane Feinstein's house with a leaf blower to "clean up the city," and was even bold enough to wear a pirate suit in his publicity photo.

Biafra finished fourth, and in the end, had this to say: "For those of them who have seen my candidacy as
a publicity stunt or a joke, they should keep in mind that it is no more of a joke, and no less of a joke, than anyone else they care to name."

Steve Rocco

On November 2, 2004, a mysterious character won a place on the Orange Unified School District Board of Trustees. He rarely leaves his house and refuses interviews. He will not allow himself to be fingerprinted for district records. He shows up at meetings in a costume consisting of either black or camouflage clothing, a knit cap, and sunglasses. He has self-published his own book of conspiracy theories, and has made speeches regarding something called, "The Partnership," a secretive entity that is trying to assassinate him. As of April 2008, The Board has gone so far as to vote to silence the presentation of his theories at meetings. And some even believe Rocco is none other than comedian Andy Kaufman.

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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]