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Secrets of Past Elections Revealed! (1992)

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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.

George Bush the elder had just spent four years trying to refashion America into a "kinder and gentler" nation. But by the 1992 election, the American people didn't so much feel like being kinder or gentler with George Bush, especially with the economy in the crapper, rising violence in the nation's urban centers, and high deficit spending. Clinton had such a lock on the election that Newsweek didn't wait until after the votes were in to publish their behind-the-scenes, inside-the-campaign tell-all, instead publishing on November 1st.

No really, there was a nefarious plot"¦

When Texas billionaire Ross Perot abruptly dropped out of 1992 presidential election, his surprisingly numerous supporters felt blindsided, disappointed and a little angry. It wasn't until a few months later that they found away why Perot had walked away from what was becoming a real campaign. During an interview on 60 Minutes, Perot claimed that he did it to protect his daughter. According to Perot, his daughter Carolyn's wedding was in danger of being disrupted by a nefarious Republican plot to embarrass her with lurid and ostensibly doctored photographed. And this same nefarious plot included some sort of disruption of the wedding day itself. And there was this other nefarious plot to tap his phones. Perot had no proof that either plot existed, but hey, a man can't be too careful with his daughter's happiness, now can he? (It was later discovered that the man who told Perot about the plots actually made it up, in an effort to discredit Bush.)

Perot jumped back in the race in September, after he was able to get his name on ballots in 50 states, but he was never able to regain the momentum he had in July. Still, Perot was a real candidate: He was the first third-party candidate to participate in the final televised presidential debate and he ultimately carried 18.9 percent of the popular vote.

I'd like to thank the Academy

After Bill Clinton won the election, the third call he took—after George Bush's concession and Dan Quayle's congratulations—was from Whoopi Goldberg. Still, you can't accuse Clinton for being entirely a slave to celebrity—when Ivana Trump dropped by the Arkansas Governor's Mansion to pay an unannounced visit to the President Elect, she was politely turned away.

The original flip-flopper?

clinton-sax.jpgDespite their dissatisfaction with President George Bush, voters still had a little difficulty getting on board with the Clinton campaign. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some voters felt that they couldn't trust him and Clinton's campaign knew it. Clinton's handlers had conducted a covert operation they called the "Manhattan Project" in which they asked a series of focus groups what they didn't like about the candidate. Reactions from Allentown, PA, included: "Two-faced"; "He just goes with the flow"; and, "If you asked his favorite color, he'd say, "˜Plaid.'"


Even Clinton's lead strategist, the Ragin' Cajun James Carville, reportedly said once, "I've had blind dates with women I've known more about than I know about Clinton." (On another James Carville-related note, it was just after this election that he married Mary Matalin "“ lifelong Republican and one of Bush's chief strategists.)

Bush almost didn't run for re-election

Bush very sincerely considered not running for re-election. His 1988 campaign had left him battered and scarred, primarily by his own campaign's meanness and willingness to go for the jugular. Barbara didn't exactly love White House life and Bush hated the burden his presidency had put on his family. Bush not only hadn't started campaigning, but he hadn't even decided whether or not to run by January 1992; all the while, Democrats were landing broadsides, publicly taking Bush to task for the declining state of the economy (of course, voters of 2008 might teach the voters of 1992 a thing or two about a declining economy).

The dynamic duo of Waffle Man and Ozone and Bush's last stand

During the last weeks of the campaign, Bush seemed to be closing the gap on Clinton, who for most of the campaign season had boasted polling points far and away above Bush's. After months of being so far down, the President was jazzed like a 10-year-old on Red Bull at a Hannah Montana concert. He traveled around the country, railing against Clinton and Gore, referring to them respectively as "the Waffle Man" and "Ozone," at one campaign stop, even calling the candidates "those two bozos." Barbara and Bush's handlers thought that last one might have gone too far. "Jeez, you guys, lighten up," Bush replied. "I was just being funny."

Bush, by this time, was in revolt. He was tired of losing, tired of being told what to do "“ especially since it didn't appear to be winning any elections for him "“ and ready to get petulant. His favorite bumper sticker at this point: ANNOY THE MEDIA: RE-ELECT BUSH. He even refused to let his hair grow out, even though his team said it looked better on television a little longer, and refused to give up his favorite, so loud it was shrieking red, white and blue necktie. "You're in full-throttle handler revolt," one of his handlers told him one day.

Bush's reprieve from loser-land lasted only a short time "“ after an Iran-contra case court filing indicated that Bush had supported the American hostages for weapons swap, Clinton soared ahead again, and the rest is political history.

Previously: 1988, 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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May 23, 2017
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