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The Quick 10: 10 Failed Assassination Attempts

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Today happens to be the anniversary of the day Sara Jane Moore tried to take President Ford out in 1975. Had it not been for the quick thinking of the guy next to her, Nelson Rockefeller would have been president and who knows where history would have taken us. Ford isn't the only U.S. president to narrowly escape disaster - here are nine other tales of presidents

1. Andrew Jackson, 1835. I love this one, because when house painter Richard Lawrence's shots misfired, Old Hickory beat him with a cane until he could be apprehended. Dude was tough.

2. Teddy Roosevelt, 1912. Teddy was giving a speech in Milwaukee when he was shot once by saloon-keeper John Schrank. Unperturbed, Roosevelt announced that he had been shot but insisted on finished out his speech anyway. His thick speech and his glasses case stopped the bullet from being fatal. The bullet was never removed.

3. Franklin Roosevelt, 1933. Giuseppe Zangara shot five times at Roosevelt. He wounded four people and killed Chicago mayor Anton Cermak. The shooting happened on February 15; Zangara was executed in Florida's infamous Old Sparky for Cermak's murder on March 20.

4. Harry Truman, 1950. Two Puerto Rican pro-independence activists walked right up to the Blair House, where Truman was staying, with intent to assassinate Truman. One of the men distracted Secret Service while the other approached a guard booth and killed the guard inside. President Truman looked out his bedroom window; one of the activists was only 31 feet away. Both men were killed by gunfire - one at the hand of the other, and one by the Secret Service.

5. JFK, 1960. Years before Lee Harvey Oswald, 73-year-old Richard Pavlick intended to crash his car, loaded up with dynamite, into Kennedy's car. Pavlick saw Jackie and Caroline saying goodbye to the President and decided to call the operation off. When he was pulled over for a moving violation a few days later, he still had dynamite in his car and the Secret Service nabbed him.

6. Richard Nixon #1, 1972. Arthur Bremer intended to shoot Nixon when he was visiting Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario. He was unable to get a good shot and there was too much security due to Vietnam War protests. When he gave up on that attempt, he settled for shooting Democratic Presidential Candidate George Wallace a month later instead.
7. Nixon #2, 1974. Samuel Byck, a former tire salesman, hijacked a plane at the Baltimore/Washington International Airport. He shot both the pilot and the co-pilot and told a passenger to fly the plane. Byck was shot through the glass of the aircraft door and ended up finishing himself off before the police could make their way into the cockpit.

8. Gerald Ford #1, 1975. Charles Manson devotee Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme tried to shoot Ford when he was shaking hands in a crowd in Sacramento. She tried to fire on him when he reached to shake her hand, but the firing chamber was empty.

9. Gerald Ford #2, 1975. Just 17 days later, on September 22, Sara Jane Moore fired at Ford in San Francisco. The guy standing next to Moore saw what was happening and jerked her arm away, making the shot miss the President. She was paroled just last year.

10. Jimmy Carter, 1979. Carter was in L.A. to give a speech when a man was arrested with a gun. His story was that he was only there to distract Secret Service; other hit men with sniper rifles were waiting in the wings to assassinate Carter. The man, Raymond Lee Harvey, escaped conviction because there was a lack of evidence.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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