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Secrets of Past Elections Revealed! (1988)

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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 Year of the Handler

There were more than a few candidates littering the field in 1988, but in the end, it came to two men, neither of whom seemed to know exactly why they were running or why they should win. A Newsweek poll around Election Day found that 74 percent of the respondents believed that the candidates were just saying what they had to say to get elected. Not exactly a resounding vote of confidence. Newsweek described the election year as the year of the handler, because it was the candidates' handlers and strategists "“ a breed of professional approaching an apogee of influence in the 1988 election "“ who got them through the campaign more than anything else. It was dull, it was depressing "“ where were our bright lights, our glorious leaders, or even someone who seemed like they actually wanted the job? In the end, we got George Bush.

Bad news is better than no news

George Bush's campaign ran largely on proving a negative: It wasn't that Bush was the best man for the job, it was that he was far better than Governor Michael Dukakis. This strategy was primarily conveyed through television ads that were the very definition of attack campaigning, so much so that Bush himself became uncomfortable. But after some of the more mean-spirited ads were pulled, the evening news stopped reporting on the campaign. The ads were back up and running just four days after they were pulled.

There was one ad, however, that the Bush camp decided not to run (or even produce), one that the campaign called "Bestiality." While Dukakis was still a Massachusetts legislator, he allowed his name to appear on a bill repealing an old law that forbade "unnatural" sex acts. The ad, as the Bush team proposed, would simply feature the words "In 1970, Governor Michael Dukakis introduced legislation in Massachusetts to repeal the ban on sodomy and bestiality." Those last words would be accompanied by frightened mooing and baaing.

While the ad never saw the light of day, it was a constant source of amusement to the Bush campaign. Even Bush himself joked about it: Once, when his pet dog wandered into a strategy meeting, Bush looked at him and said, "You're the reason I'm running. We've got to keep those people away from you."

Inheriting the Reagan Regime

By this time, President Ronald Reagan was absolutely winding down: Aides said that the best way to talk to him about an issue of policy was to open with a joke, or state the problem clearly "“ and loudly "“ up front. At the open of 1988, he sat down with a group of advisors and said, "Say, do you know one of the benefits of having Alzheimer's disease? You get to meet new friends every day." Reagan would regularly fall asleep during meetings with Secretary of State George P. Shultz (whom White House staffers called "Mr. Potato Head"), or over his Monday issues lunch, or in issues briefings. This was the state of the White House during the 1988 election.

Say what, now?

Where George W. Bush is well known for his ability to mangle the English language, it's just possible that he got it from his father. One of George H.W. Bush's most memorable and most public verbal stumbles? The time he tried to say that he and President Reagan had had some "setbacks" and ended up saying "We've had sex."

Then there was the time, straying from his script, when he claimed he was for "anti-bigotry, anti-Semitism, anti-racism." Or when, in a speech, he accidentally moved Pearl Harbor Day from December to September.

Temper tantrum time

Michael Dukakis had mostly traveled from campaign stop to campaign stop aboard the affectionately named "Sky Pig," a slow and decidedly unpresidential jet plane. But when the campaign moved to replace it, bundling Dukakis aboard a faster, bigger jet, he got upset. He got even more upset when he learned that the plan didn't stock his favorite cereal "“ "Where's my Raisin Bran?" he demanded.

The next day, the Sky Pig and its Raisin Bran came back.

The Sky Pig temper tantrum was just one of many, according to Dukakis aides. One aide claimed that Dukakis had only two emotions: Mad and madder.

The search for Spikey

The night before one of the big debates between Bush and Dukakis, the Massachusetts governor was sweating bullets up in Boston and had hit the books hard. Bush, on the other hand, had spent the night looking for Spikey. Spikey was a stuffed toy belonging to one of Bush's granddaughters and, it seemed, had gone missing. The little girl couldn't sleep without Spikey, so Bush gamely dawned a raincoat and spent the night searching for Spikey in the shrubs outside. Spikey didn't materialize until the next morning "“ Bush made up a story about Spikey having a sleepover somewhere else "“ but the search left Bush tired, developing a cold, and unable to prepare for the next day's debate. Even though Dukakis essentially won the debate, Bush surged ahead in the polls.

Previously: 1984

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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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]

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