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Secrets of Past Elections Revealed! (2004)

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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 she wraps up with Bush v. Kerry.

In the midst of the Iraq War, on the heels of September 11, George Bush sought re-election. Everyone knows he won, but here's what happened backstage.

Cassandra complexes

It was a difficult election year for George W. Bush, 43rd president of the United States, and his daughters knew it "“ in fact, Jenna Bush, one of George's twin daughters, had a dream that her father lost the election. Though better known for boozing it up than for prescient dreams, Jenna took the dream seriously "“ it so frightened her that she and her sister, who had previously remained aloof from the political process, began campaigning for their father.

Alexandra Kerry, John Kerry's 30-something daughter, also had a premonition of sorts "“ unfortunately for the Massachusetts senator, however, his daughter's vision came true. After a particularly brutal day out on the campaign trail stumping for her father, Alexandra broke down weeping in her father's arms. She told the elder Kerry that she believed the Republicans would steal the election. Kerry comforted her in response, saying that he wouldn't let that happen.

Alexandra, a budding filmmaker herself, also worried about her father's stiff appearance on TV "“ so much so that she jokingly offered filmmaker Stephen Spielberg $5 to talk to her dad about how to come across better on television.

Money talks "“ and so does John Kerry

Kerry did his best to make sure that the Republicans didn't steal the election, including recruiting an army of 10,000 lawyers. Kerry, like Bush, also had access to some of the best political minds in the nation. Unlike Bush, however, Kerry couldn't seem to keep himself from calling them. He called them so much that his handlers took away his cell phone "“ twice.

Both candidates could afford the cleverest political operatives "“ this was the first election that broke the $1 billion campaign barrier, and both candidates had amassed more money than had ever been raised in presidential campaign in American history. Of course, the power of $1 billion in available campaign funds is a little undermined when your opponent has also raised the same amount, but that didn't seem to matter to our would-be presidents.

The bipartisan administration that could have been

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John Kerry so badly wanted Republican Sen. John McCain to be his running mate that he offered to substantially "“ and officially "“ expand the role of the veep to include Secretary of Defense and complete control of the administration's foreign policy. McCain flatly refused, saying, "You're out of your mind. I don't even know if it's constitutional, and it certainly wouldn't sell."

The little known "Palme de Bitch-Slap" award

Mark McKinnon, the man behind Bush's television ad campaign, awarded himself his own highest praise for the "Troops-Fog" ad, which portrayed John Kerry as a flip-flopper on the issue of the Iraq war. The award was "the coveted Palme de Bitch-Slap," he called it, a play on the Canne Film Festival's Palme d'Or honor. For his birthday that year, a few fellow campaign staffers bought him a small golden "Palme de Bitch-Slap" statuette, which McKinnon proudly displayed on top of his television.

Karl Rove, Miller man

Among chief campaign strategist and possible Sith lord Karl Rove's favorite words and phrases: "Bloviate" (in reference to Kerry's debate style), "Yeah baby!" "Attawaytogo!" and "It's Miller time!" During the campaign, Rove also conducted Saturday morning planning meetings with a group he called "The Breakfast Club."

Super T rocks the White House

tyrone_smith 2.jpgBy Dec. 20, 2003, as the war in Iraq continued and the election loomed on the horizon, the Bush family was stressed out and in desperate need of some relaxation. The Bush twins, Jenna and Barbara, decided to use their First Kid privileges to hold a raging holiday party for their college friends at the Executive Mansion. Jenna, industrious in the quest of a good time, booked a favorite Southern party band from Nashville, known formally as the Tyrone Smith Revue. To their friends "“ which now includes the Bush family "“ the band is known as Super T. Set up in a room usually reserved for press conferences, Super T rocked the house "“ and led Laura, George and the twins in the "Super T Booty Green," a dance that seems to involve putting your hands on your knees, bending over and shakin' it.

Previously: 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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