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A Brief History of Newspaper Endorsements

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As the presidential election inches closer, both candidates are looking for any little edge they might be able to find. To some undecided voters, a ringing endorsement might be just the thing they need to jump firmly into one candidate's camp. Although personal endorsements like the resounding one Colin Powell gave Barack Obama on Meet the Press last weekend are commonplace, what about newspaper endorsements? A thumbs-up from the editorial board of a major newspaper was once a serious boon to a campaign.

Do people actually vote according to their newspaper's endorsement? Hard to say. In most elections since 1940, the candidate with the strongest newspaper support has won, but there are notable exceptions. FDR won over less than a quarter of papers in his last two bids for reelection, while Harry Truman only mustered support from 15% of papers in 1948. In 2004, John Kerry held a slight edge over George W. Bush in endorsements, but it didn't help him win the White House. (According to Editor & Publisher, Obama's received 127 endorsements to 49 for John McCain.)

While such plugs were once ubiquitous, they've faded in recent decades; a survey by Editor & Publisher showed that by 1996, almost 70% of newspapers weren't endorsing presidential candidates as opposed to just 13.4% during the 1940 election cycle. Part of this is probably a reluctance to engage in partisan politics, but it also probably speaks to the decline of the newspaper as a central aspect of Americans' lives. With so many avenues available for voters to get to know the candidates, it seems rather quaint to think of anyone voting how an editor tells them to. Nevertheless, endorsement of candidates persists, so here's what you might want to know about the practice:

The biggest dogs don't take sides.

WSJ-USAToday.jpgThe two most-circulated papers in the country, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, don't endorse candidates. The last time the WSJ endorsed a candidate was 1928, and perhaps the ensuing embarrassment was enough to scare the paper away from endorsements permanently. When handicapping the race between Herbert Hoover and Al Smith, the Journal's editors wrote, "That a financial newspaper should be independent goes without saying"¦Nevertheless it advises its readers to vote for Hoover, as the soundest proposition for those with a financial stake in the country." You may remember hearing about an epic financial crash less than a year later.

Over time, the Journal's no-endorsements policy became so strict that it necessitated an explanation every election cycle. In 1972, the editors clarified the issue: "Indeed, the short reason is simplicity itself: We don't think our business is telling people how to vote"¦We do not see any meaningful way in which that would either add to the reader's understanding of his times or raise the level of the public debate."

And sometimes other papers follow suit.

washingtonpostlogo.jpgThe Washington Post is the country's 7th-biggest paper in terms of circulation and obviously a key publication for those in and around the D.C. area. It generally endorses the Democratic candidate "“ the paper's already thrown its hat in with Obama this year "“ but some years, it just can't pick a candidate it likes. The paper notably declined to endorse anyone in the 1988 race between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. That didn't keep the editors from weighing in on the election, though; instead, they took the opportunity to excoriate both candidates and their campaigns. "This year's campaign is not just a domestic disappointment, it is an international embarrassment"¦" That zinger must have hurt almost as much as a certain ride in a tank.

Tempers can flare.

miami-herald.jpgOf course, when a paper endorses a candidate, it can't possibly speak for everyone on its staff, and a few members are bound to voice their dissent. The Miami Herald found this out the hard way in successive elections. During the 1980 race, editorial page editor Jim Hampton loathed Reagan, but his executive editor, John McMullan, was no warmer on Jimmy Carter. As a sort of truce that would please no one, they endorsed a candidate neither of them liked, Independent John B. Anderson.

When Reagan came up for reelection in 1984, Hampton found himself in another tight spot. The editorial board wanted to endorse Democratic challenger Walter Mondale, but Richard Capen, the paper's publisher, mandated a Reagan endorsement. At this point, Hampton was understandably a bit fed up with the process and decided to resign from the paper. Capen, however, refused to accept the resignation and had Hampton instead pen an editorial of his own explaining why he disagreed with the endorsement of Reagan.

The New York Times has had its adventures.

nytimes.jpgAlthough The New York Times has yet to endorse a candidate this year, the smart money is betting that it eventually endorses Obama. After all, the paper has endorsed the Democrat in the last 12 elections, and throughout its history has largely supported the party's candidates. However, there have been a few notable exceptions, like when the paper threw its vote behind Republican challenger Wendell Wilkie during his 1940 run against Franklin Roosevelt. (The paper did come back around on FDR and endorsed him in 1944.) The Times has also declined to endorse on certain occasions, most notably in 1928, when it said that given the choice between Al Smith and Herbert Hoover it was "happy with either."

The L.A. Times took a nice long break.

nixon-latimes.jpgUntil 1972 the Los Angeles Times had only given out endorsements to Republican candidates, and that year was no exception when the paper weighed in in favor of reelecting Richard Nixon. After that election, though, the paper stopped giving endorsements. Why?


As with many political problems of that era, you can blame Nixon. The LA Times admittedly played a large role in Nixon's rise to national prominence as he worked his way through Congress and into the Vice Presidency. Throughout his early career, Nixon enjoyed a particularly cozy relationship with the Chandler family who owned and ran the paper, so they'd help give him little positive bumps, both on the editorial and news pages. By the 1960s, the paper's staff was starting to grow tired of the cronyism between the Chandlers and Nixon, and although he continued getting the paper's endorsements, it also started being openly critical of him and doing investigative work into his apparent shenanigans. By 1972, the paper's writers were so fed up with the connection between Tricky Dick and their publication that they countered with their own endorsement of George McGovern, which ran as letter to the editor. Months later, the Watergate scandal broke, and the dissenting reporters looked wise for withholding their support. In September of 1973, the Times officially quit making endorsements.

The paper got back into the endorsement business with the primaries earlier this year, though, and has now given its support to Obama, its first-ever Democratic endorsement.

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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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