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10 Memorable Moments From Forgotten Campaigns

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As we approach the finish line of the presidential election, Joseph Cummins is here to share some of the underappreciated moments, dirty tricks and cheap shots that marked past campaigns. Mr. Cummins is the author of Anything for a Vote, available at Amazon.

1. John Quincy Adams: Pimp?

Election of 1828: Andrew Jackson defeats John Quincy Adams
When people really want to get dirty, they hit below the belt. During the 1828 campaign, Andrew Jackson supporters claimed with utter seriousness that the prudish Adams, when serving as minister to the Russian court of Czar Alexander I, had offered his wife's maid to the czar as a concubine. That there was a kernel of innocent truth here—Adams had introduced the young woman to the czar—made the lie easier to swallow.

2. The Advent of the Ad Man

Election of 1920: Warren Harding defeats James Cox
When Albert Lasker signed on as a Harding campaign consultant, the playbook for presidential elections was rewritten forever. Lasker was the head of a Chicago advertising and public relations firm and a true innovator; he coordinated a PR blitz for Harding that included movies, radio, photography, newspapers, and magazines. Some sample Lasker ad headlines:

Harding-prez.jpg"America First!"


"Independence means Independence, now as in 1776."


"Let's be done with wiggle and wobble!"


"This country will remain American. Its next President will remain in our own country."

These utterances may strike us as inane, but in 1920 they spoke to an American public that was becoming more insular in an uncertain world.

Then, as now, people liked their movie stars, and Lasker helped Harding populate his front porch in Marion with Hollywood names. Long before Al Gore got chummy with Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon, newsreel cameras captured Harding at home, hamming it up with the likes of Al Jolson, Lillian Russell, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. The same cameras caught James Cox doggedly, grimly stumping away. People had no trouble deciding which candidate was more fun.

3. Hang It All!

Election of 1856: James Buchanan defeats John C. Fremont
James Buchanan suffered from congenital palsy that caused his head to tilt slightly to the left. John C. Fremont's supporters claimed the tilt was really the result of Buchanan's bungled attempt to hang himself—and a man who couldn't even do away with himself could not be president, could he?

4. The Dirty Tricks of LBJ

Election of 1964: Lyndon Johnson defeats Barry Goldwater
LBJ-Richard-Russell.jpg

It is amazing that Lyndon Johnson wasn't impeached for some of the dirty tricks he pulled on Barry Goldwater—they were as bad as the unethical tactics that got Richard Nixon thrown out of office ten years later.

In order to smear his opponent Johnson set up a top-secret sixteen-man committee, which was dubbed the "anti-campaign" or the "five o'clock club" because of its after-business-hours nature. Johnson directly controlled this committee through two of his aides, who chaired each meeting. Among their activities were:

• Developing books to smear Goldwater, with such titles as: Barry Goldwater: Extremist of the Right; The Case Against Barry Goldwater; a Goldwater joke book entitled You Can Die Laughing; and even a children's coloring book, in which the wee ones could color pictures of Goldwater dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes.

• Writing letters to columnist Ann Landers under the guise of ordinary people who were terrified of Goldwater becoming president.

• Sending CIA agent E. Howard Hunt (later infamous for his role in the Watergate break-in) to infiltrate Goldwater campaign headquarters. Hunt got access to advance texts of Goldwater speeches and fed the information to the White House staff, who undercut Goldwater initiatives on a number of occasions.

5. James Monroe Sails to Reelection

Election of 1820: James Monroe defeats, well, nobody
In 1820, Republicans re-nominated James Monroe for President. The Federalist Party, since it had ceased to exist, nominated no one. For the third—and last—time in history, a presidential candidate ran unopposed.

Monroe received all the electoral votes—well, all but one. A curmudgeon in New Hampshire gave his one vote to John Quincy Adams, Monroe's secretary of state, so George Washington would remain the only president ever elected unanimously.

6. Davy Crockett, Attack Dog

Election of 1836: Martin Van Buren defeats William Henry Harrison
davy.jpgWhen one reads about Davy Crockett's career in politics, one gets a very different picture than that of the honorable home-spun hero of 1950s TV coonskin cap fame. Crockett was a Whig attack dog, the Ann Coulter of his time. In his insanely spurious The Life of Martin Van Buren, Heir-Apparent to the 'Government,' and the Appointed Successor of General Andrew Jackson. Containing Every Authentic Particular by Which His Extraordinary Character Has Been Formed. With a Concise History of the Events That Have Occasioned His Unparalleled Elevation; Together with a Review of His Policy as a Statesman, Crockett (or his ghostwriter) claims that Martin Van Buren "is fifty-three years old; and notwithstanding his baldness, which reaches all round and over half down his head, like a white pitch plaster, leaving a few white floating locks, he is only three years older than I am. His face is a good deal shrivelled, and he looks sorry, not for any thing he has gained, but what he may lose."

Crockett goes on to administer the coup de grace thusly: "Martin Van Buren is laced up in corsets, such as women in a town wear, and if possible tighter than the best of them. It would be difficult to say from his personal appearance, whether he was a man or a woman, but for his large red and gray whiskers."

Davy, unfortunately, was skewered on a Mexican bayonet before he could observe whether his skewering of Van Buren hit home.

7. The Sultan of Spin

Election of 1928: Herbert Hoover defeats Al Smith
babe-ruth-al-smith.jpg

Smith was lucky enough to have the endorsement of the country's biggest sports hero, Babe Ruth. After the Yankees' victory in the World Series of 1928, Babe Ruth stumped for Smith from the back of a train carrying the team home from St. Louis. Unfortunately, Ruth wasn't the most dependable spokesman. He would sometimes appear in his undershirt, holding a mug of beer in one hand and a spare rib in the other. Worse, if he met with any dissent while praising Smith, he would snarl, "If that's the way you feel, the hell with you!" and stagger back inside.

8. The North's Dirty Little Secret

Election of 1868: Ulysses S. Grant defeats Horatio Seymour
In 1868, even though an entire war had just been fought over slavery, black votes were counted in only sixteen of the thirty-seven states. Eight of these states were in the former Confederacy. (Blacks were registered to vote in Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia, but the electoral votes in these states did not count because they had not yet been readmitted to the union.) Connecticut did not allow blacks to vote, and New York made ownership of $250 worth of property a requirement before allowing a black citizen to cast his ballot.

9. The Original October Surprise

Election of 1880: James Garfield defeats Winfield Hancock
On October 20, 1880, James Garfield fell victim to what is probably the first October Surprise in U.S. presidential election history. A newspaper improbably named the New York Truth printed a letter purportedly written by Garfield to an H.L. Morey of the Employers Union of Lynn, Massachusetts. In it Garfield wrote that the "Chinese problem" (the fears of whites in the West that Chinese immigrants would take jobs from them) was not a problem at all, and that employers had the right "to buy labor where they can get it the cheapest."

This struck terror into those who had been trying to keep the Chinese out of America, particularly Californians. Garfield certainly did not write the Morey letter and was able to refute it. Investigation showed that there was no Morey and no Employers Union in Lynn, Massachusetts, either. The letter was traced to the hand of one Kenward Philp, a Truth journalist who was later arrested and indicted for fraud.

Despite the fact that Garfield was able to prove his innocence, the Morey letter hurt him. It caused him to lose California, which almost caused him to lose the close election of 1880.

10. The Madman in the White House

Election of 1896: William McKinley defeats William Jennings Bryan
In September, just as the election was heating up to a fever pitch, the McKinley-supporting New York Times published an interesting little article entitled "Is Mr. Bryan Crazy?" The story examined a number of the Democratic candidate's utterances and claimed that they were not the workings of a rational mind. The Times editors also included a letter from a distinguished alienist stating that if Bryan won the election, "there would be a madman in the White House."

Not content with this, the paper interviewed several more alienists and published the results two days later. These eminent medical geniuses said that Bryan suffered from megalomania (delusions of grandeur), paranoid querulent (complaining too much), and querulent logorrhea (talking about complaining too much). One other "expert" simply said, "I don't think Bryan is ordinarily crazy...But I should like to examine him as a degenerate."


anything-for-a-vote.jpg
This article was excerpted from Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots, and October Surprises in U.S. Presidential Campaigns, written by Joseph Cummins. You can order your copy from Amazon.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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