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The Electoral College Survival Guide

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As you will be reminded countless times in the coming week, when you cast your vote in next Tuesday's presidential election, you're not taking part in a nationwide popular vote, but rather helping decide who your state's Electoral College delegates support. There are all sorts of arguments for and against using this system rather than picking a winner based solely on the national popular vote, but for the moment, it looks like the Electoral College will be sticking around for a while. So what do you need to know about the least-fun college this side of the Catholic Church's College of Cardinals?

What are the Electoral College's admissions policies?

Different states choose their electors in different ways. Some states have nominations for electors during party conventions, while others choose their electors in primaries. In Pennsylvania, the campaigns choose their own electors. The only real things that can disqualify you from being an elector are holding a federal office or having engaged in some sort of insurrection against the U.S. government. Chosen electors are generally loyal party members who can be counted on to cast a ballot that's in line with their state's popular vote.

Where's the Electoral College's campus?

It doesn't have one. Although the name might make you think that all the electors meet in a centralized location to cast their ballots, the Electoral College never actually convenes as a unified group. Instead, the chosen electors all meet at their respective state capitals on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December to cast their votes. The votes are then counted in a joint session of Congress on January 6th.

What if no one gets a majority of the Electoral College's votes?

If no candidate can grab a majority (currently 270) of the Electoral College's votes, the House of Representatives meets immediately to pick the new President. In this situation, each state's Congressmen get together and pick a candidate among the top three vote getters in the Electoral College balloting. Each state's delegation then casts one vote. This process keeps going on indefinitely until a single candidate receives a majority of the states' votes. The House of Representatives has picked two presidents: Thomas Jefferson in 1800 and John Quincy Adams in 1824.

Since electors also ballots for Vice President, the same situation can arise with that office. In these cases, the Senate immediately goes into session to pick a Vice President, although each Senator has his own vote. The Senate votes until a candidate receives a majority of the cast votes. This sort of contingent election has happened just once. In 1836 Martin Van Buren's running mate, Richard M. Johnson needed 148 votes to win the Vice Presidency, but Virginia's electors refused to vote for him. As a result, he ended up stuck with 147 votes, and the Senate had to hold a contingent election, where Johnson cruised by Whig candidate Francis P. Granger.

Can the electors change their mind?

They can, but they then become what are known as "faithless electors." Technically, states make their electors pledge to vote in a certain way, and 24 states have laws that punish electors who decide to get cute and switch things up. However, with a few exceptions like Michigan and Minnesota, votes cast by faithless electors still count in the final tally.

Yeah, but that never happens, does it?

reagan-ford.jpgFaithless electors have actually popped up fairly frequently in American electoral history. One notable instance of faithless electors rearing their head occurred in 1972. Roger MacBride, the treasurer of the Republican Party of Virginia, was a pledged elector for Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. Instead, he cast his ballot for the Libertarian ticket. While this vote put him firmly on the outs with the state G.O.P., he became something of a Libertarian folk hero. In fact, Libertarians were so enthused by his vote that he won the party's presidential nomination in the 1976 election.


Although most switcheroos don't benefit small-party candidates like this one did, they're not all that uncommon, and not a recent trend, either; Abraham Lincoln's winning total in the 1860 election included four electors who were pledged to Stephen Douglas. Although Ronald Reagan won sound victories in 1980 and 1984, he also received a single electoral vote in 1976. Mike Padden, a faithless elector from Spokane, cast his vote for Reagan instead of Gerald Ford, as he'd pledged.

It's winner-take-all for each state, right?

Yes, for most states, the winner of the popular vote gets all of the state's electors. However, Maine and Nebraska allocate their electors a little differently. Since each seat in Congress is roughly analogous to one vote in the Electoral College, these states let each congressional district pick its own candidate. The state's remaining two electoral votes, which correspond to the state's two Senators, go to whichever candidate wins the popular vote within the state. Technically, this system could result in a state's electoral votes being split between two candidates. In practice, though, all of the districts tend to vote the same way. Although Maine and Nebraska have been using this system since 1972 and 1992, respectively, neither state has ever split its presidential votes.

What happens if a president-elect dies?

The national election will take place next week, but the Electoral College won't formally meet to cast their votes until December 15. If a candidate dies or becomes otherwise unfit to take office in the interim, a thorny issue pops up. Some states, like Virginia, legally bind their electors to vote for the candidate whose name was on the general election ballot. Other states, though, are more flexible and would allow their electors to vote for the ticket's vice-presidential candidate or other agreed-upon candidate.

Luckily, this scenario has never happened with an election winner. In 1872, though, Democrat Horace Greeley died just over three weeks after Ulysses S. Grant thumped him in the election. Since the Electoral College still had to meet to elect Grant, electors who would have voted for Greeley simply spread their 66 votes among other Democratic candidates. As a result, Thomas Andrews Hendricks actually came in second in the election with 42 electoral votes despite not campaigning for the presidency; he was busy successfully running for Governor of Indiana. Three electors actually voted for Greeley even though he was dead, which probably tells you all you need to know about the health of the Democratic Party during Reconstruction.

If the President elect dies after the Electoral College's voting but before the inauguration, the Twentieth Amendment states that the Vice President elect becomes President.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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