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Secrets of Past Elections Revealed! (2000)

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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. Today's topic is the endless election of 2000.

The 2000 election "“ the one that saw George W. Bush follow in his father's footsteps "“ didn't come to an official conclusion until December 12, 2000. Of course, everyone remembers that. But here are a few things you might not have known about the election that wouldn't end.

Just kidding

On the night of the election, former vice president Al Gore called George Bush to concede the hard-fought race, after several television networks had declared Bush the winner. But after Bush's lead in Florida shrunk to a mere 500 votes, with 99.5 percent of the precincts reporting, Gore called him back "“ to withdraw his concession. According to Newsweek, the conversation was somewhat tense: "Circumstances have changed dramatically since I first called you," Gore said. "The state of Florida is too close to call."

Bush: "Are you saying what I think you're saying? Let me make sure that I understand. You're calling back to retract that concession!"

Gore: "Don't get snippy about it!"

Hush up, Nader

Gore aides were so frustrated with Ralph Nader, whose presence in the race some believe cost Gore the election, that every time he appeared on television election night, a staffer would mute his voice.

New Age finds a new home

Al Gore's single most important advisor for at least part of the 2000 campaign was New Age guru and consummate feminist Naomi Wolf. Introduced to her through his daughter, Gore took Wolf's word as gospel. Wolf, for her part, told Gore that Americans felt betrayed by President Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky and were ashamed that they had voted for him. Gore, influenced by Wolf, then told staffers that he was paying a "psychic penalty" for Clinton's indiscretions. For that tenuous bit of psychobabble, as well as advice on how to become the "alpha male" in the country, the campaign paid Wolf around $15,000 a month.

Keeping the Gore campaign afloat

Gore's image suffered from his limp television presence, his somewhat dull demeanor, and his seeming inability to make voters realize that he really cared about becoming the—that it wasn't simply the next rung on his career ladder. The Gore campaign's ham-fisted attempts to personalize the candidate weren't helping matters. In the run up to the New Hampshire primary, for example, the campaign organized a photo-op canoe trip on the state's Connecticut River. Unfortunately, they had two problems: The first was that the candidate couldn't seem to relax in the canoe. The second was that the press later found out that Gore's boat was floated by millions of gallons of water pumped in the river just for that purpose, in order to avoid any awkward moments and stuck canoes.

Sweating to the oldies?

According to Newsweek, Gore sweats. A lot. Like, more than the average human. Like so much that during debates with Bush, he demanded that the temperature in the hall be kept as low as possible. Bush, entering the debate hall one night, joked, "Who's got my parka?"

Bush on Oprah

It was Laura Bush who convinced George Bush to go on Oprah, a move that she thought would help the then-candidate show the American people the personable, funny person he was. It worked, and stalled a popularity nosedive in the polls. His appearance on Oprah—kissing the cheek of the most powerful woman in America "“ led to appearances on Regis, on Leno, and later on MSNBC to chat with Brian Williams.

Previously: 1988, 1984, 1992, 1996

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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