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How the Obama Campaign Makes "Two Minute Volunteers"

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The Obama presidential campaign made waves last week when it announced Obama '08: The Official iPhone Application. This free application hit the iTunes App Store Top 10, and has generated nearly 700 reviews so far. Whether you're an Obama supporter or not, it's an interesting move: the campaign is using technology to decentralize the campaign effort, effectively turning thousands of individuals across the nation into micro-call centers. This effort is likely to be mirrored by future campaigns, and I wouldn't be surprised if the McCain campaign was working on something similar right now.

So how does it work? Well, the Obama '08 application's most innovative function -- labeled "Call Friends" -- looks inside your address book and organizes your contacts by battleground state, with buttons allowing you to call those contacts. This is really clever, but in retrospect pretty obvious -- you've got a device that makes phone calls, and you've got a list of people's phone numbers and addresses inside the device: put these things together and you've got a call center on the go. The application also ranks the battleground states (sorting the most contentious at the top of the list), and allows you to track statistics about who you've called and how they intend to vote. The idea is to encourage individuals to perform a function usually left to old school call centers, in which staffers and volunteers call down the voter rolls, trying to get out the vote for their candidate. Presumably the Obama campaign's hope is that legions of iPhone owners will call their friends in battleground states and convince them to vote Democratic. Project director Raven Zachary dubs these callers "Two Minute Volunteers," for the tiny slices of time required to call a friend and talk politics. (Having said that, I suspect it'll take more like ten minutes to really have a discussion. Or you might be a "One Minute Volunteer" and just leave a voicemail.)

But what about privacy?

Well, the designers of the Obama '08 application are very careful to disclose that the application doesn't "phone home" with any personal or private information -- its privacy policy is displayed inside the application, in a detailed screen that appears before you begin calling anyone (you have to opt in, in other words). The application does record anonymized statistics about the number of calls made through the application, and reports those statistics back to home base. There's no personally identifying information about who was called or who made the calls, but the campaign is able to measure the aggregate usage of the application and per-user (anonymous) statistics. Five days after launch, the application reports a nationwide total of 19,072 calls made by 4,211 people. The most active user called 100 people.

Obama iPhone app - IssuesBeyond the "Call Friends" feature, the application contains a complete list of issues that effectively constitutes the Obama/Biden platform. Labeled "Issues," the list is divided into a long series of categories including Education, Economy/Taxes, Faith, Healthcare, Iraq, and (my favorite) Women. The issues screens include direct quotes from Obama himself, along with detailed information from the campaign about the platform on that particular subject. The detail is impressive: there are pages of content for each issue -- enough to get a good idea of the specifics of the candidate's plans. Each issue can be emailed to a friend (the iPhone does email, remember) or further explored on the web. I think this is a great idea: it lends substance to the debate, and allows you to check up on what exactly the candidate thinks about a specific issue. It's the ultimate cocktail party conversation resource (as long as your cocktail parties are Obama-themed).

Other features include news, audio and video, local events, volunteer information, and of course a "Donate" button. But I think the "Call Friends" and "Issues" sections will have the biggest impact on the political process, and many of the reviews on the iTunes App Store have focused on these functions. You can learn more about the application from the Obama campaign's website, or read various developer blogs about the project.

Full disclosure: I'm friends with a few of the developers who volunteered their time to build this application. I haven't contributed to it and (as you can hopefully tell above) I'm not taking sides in the political debate -- but I am interested in technology and how it affects our daily lives, hence this blog post. In any case, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. Have you used the app? Do you love it, hate it, think it's weird? Are you a McCain supporter who wants to see something similar? Let us know.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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