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Secrets of Past Elections Revealed! (1984)

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After every presidential election since 1984, Newsweek has printed the best gossipy stories, revealing all the whining and backbiting of America's greatest spectacle. Linda Rodriguez has gone through Newsweek's archives to pick out some memorable moments from recent elections, and we'll be posting her stories throughout the week.

The 1984 election had all the makings of an historic moment. We had the first candidate of color to go as far as the Rev. Jesse Jackson did, and the first woman to be nominated vice president. But in the end, a recovering economy and a sense that America was entering a kind of golden era of world power and influence kept voters supporting President Ronald Reagan, who, despite being the oldest president in history, offered hope and vision for one more term. In 1984, a Gallup Poll found that roughly 50 percent of Americans felt satisfied with the direction their country was taking "“ and you can't argue with those kinds of numbers. Reagan won 49 states in a 525-13 electoral college thumping.

(As an aside, this was an historic election, but it was not the first time in history that a woman and a black man were part of the quest for the presidency "“ in 1872, a suffragette Victoria Woodhull was nominated by the Equal Rights Party. Her running mate? Frederick Douglass.)

The Gipper was sentimental

Ronald Reagan had become incredibly sentimental in his old age, despite his decidedly unsentimental economic policies: He wrote letters and sometimes checks to strangers whose stories he'd seen on 60 Minutes; while staying at Camp David, he'd gather nuts to bring back to White House squirrels; once, after reading a newspaper article about starving deer in Utah, he sent a $100 check to a fund to save them. He even cried when his team showed him an 18-minute long infomercial about him, specifically the part showing him eulogizing the men who had fallen at Normandy on D-Day.

Mondale wimps out

Walter "Fritz" Mondale was extraordinarily cautious and plagued by the Wimp Factor. Once, during his 1976 campaign, Mondale ate an ice cream cone with a knife and fork rather than risk a shot of him with ice cream on his chin. That kind of an image dogged Mondale throughout his 1984 campaign.

Things didn't tend to go well for Mondale in general. Once, while on the campaign stump in New York, he and running mate Geraldine Ferraro found themselves waving and smiling at an empty avenue in Manhattan. The candidates had shown up early for a Labor Day event "“ a little too early, because no one was there.

It's in the stars

Throughout Reagan's political career, Nancy Reagan's role was a large one. She made decisions about Reagan's workload, vetted his evening briefings, and even controlled his television appearances "“ the last on the advice of her astrologer. Nancy routinely changed the president's television appearances so that they would coincide with more auspicious star and planetary alignments.

Jesse Jackson can cure cancer

A well-worn tale around the Jackson camp was that during a rally in Virginia, a terminal cancer patient had asked to be unplugged from his life support and taken to Rev. Jesse Jackson's rally, so that he could see the candidate once before he died. According to the story, after the rally, the man's cancer had gone into remission. Jackson's run for the Democratic nomination was so historic and had made him something of a star; one of Jackson's advisors claimed that it was as if the candidate were Michael, Reggie and Jesse Jackson all in one. Of course, many Jewish Americans didn't feel this way "“ earlier in his candidacy, Jackson referred to Jews as "Hymies" and to New York as "Hymietown" during a chat with a Washington Post reporter.

The signature moment

Reagan's underwhelming performance in the first debate led some to believe that, at 73, he was too old for the rigors of the presidency. But in the second (and final) debate, Reagan zinged Mondale with the soundbite that will be replayed before every presidential debate for as long as there are presidential debates:

Tomorrow: 1988

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]