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8 Things You Didn't Know About Jerry Falwell

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Picture 32.pngWe're excited to have author, journalist, and Brown University senior (he's still a senior!) Kevin Roose blogging with us this week. His new book, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University is about the semester he spent at Liberty University. We'll let Kevin take it from here:

BY KEVIN ROOSE
jf1.jpgThere's no doubt that Jerry Falwell was controversial. Many remember him as the arch-conservative Moral Majority leader who took to the airwaves after September 11, 2001 and blamed the terrorists attacks on homosexuals, feminists, and the ACLU (among others). Or they remember him as the guy who outed the purple Teletubby.
But when I spent a semester living at Liberty University, I got to see a different side of Rev. Falwell, who founded the school in 1971 to train "Champions for Christ." I even got to interview him for Liberty's campus newspaper a few weeks before his death, in what turned out to be the last print interview he ever gave. Here, are my top 8 pieces of Falwell trivia:

1. He Was Friends with Larry Flynt

jfflynt.jpgRev. Falwell's most famous interpersonal feud was with Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler. Flynt's decision to print a piece that described Falwell having sex with his mother led to a long, high-profile Supreme Court case between the two. (The battle was dramatized in the 1996 film "The People vs. Larry Flynt.")
But after settling their case, the two men actually became close friends despite agreeing on absolutely nothing. They traded grandkid photos and diet tips, and late in his life, when Falwell had plane troubles on the way to a speaking engagement, Flynt offered him a ride in the Hustler jet. Falwell accepted.

2. Prankster in the Pulpit

To those who knew him well, Rev. Falwell was known as a consummate prankster. He carried M-80 firecrackers in his pockets, had an extra-loud horn installed on his SUV, and learned to hotwire his associates' cars, drive them several blocks away, and leave them. When we spoke, Falwell admitted placing a stinkbomb under the chair leg of Bob Jones, Jr., then-president of Bob Jones University, at a conference of pastors. "When he sat down, the bomb broke," he said, laughing. "And in a crowded auditorium, it got pretty rank pretty quick. Everyone was choking for ten, fifteen minutes."

3. How He Stole His Wife

When Rev. Falwell first met Macel Pate, who would become his wife of 49 years, she was already engaged "“ to Falwell's roommate at Bible college. Undeterred, Falwell wrote her love letters in secret, and when his roommate asked him to mail his own correspondence to Macel, Falwell simply threw the letters away. Within months, Macel had broken off her engagement to the roommate and agreed to marry Falwell instead. Stealing another man's fiancée isn't exactly a biblical approach, but all's fair in love and war.

4. He Almost Played Pro Ball

Before he became the pastor of one of America's largest churches, Falwell was a star baseball player. After graduating from high school, he received an offer to join the St. Louis Cardinals, but turned it down in order to enroll in Bible college. Until the end of his life, he remained an avid sports fan, and often showed up unannounced to watch various Liberty teams compete.

5. Almost as Loved as Reagan

falwell_reagan.jpgWhile many Americans picture Rev. Falwell as a crotchety televangelist who appeared on cable news shows, it's hard to remember that he was once a civic star, beloved by vast swaths of America. He was the Moral Majority's golden boy, the man who was almost single-handedly responsible for corralling America's evangelical population into a motivated political bloc. Time magazine once called him the "force of fundamentalism." And a 1983 Good Housekeeping poll named him the second most-admired man in the nation, behind Ronald Reagan.

6. His Daily Uniform

In his later years, Rev. Falwell was a famously predictable dresser. Every day was the same: black suit, red tie. When I talked to him in April 2007, he confessed that he had 40 or 50 red ties, enough to avoid repeats for months at a time. When he died, Liberty students came up with a novel twist on the typical black-ribbon mourning symbol: a black ribbon with a red tie dangling from the loop.

7. Armor of the Lord

jfTime.jpgRev. Falwell was paranoid about his personal safety, and he had every reason to be. For decades, his outspoken (and often outlandish) views on controversial social issues made him a potential target for violence. During the Moral Majority's heyday, he had a bulletproof pulpit installed at his Thomas Road Baptist Church, and an FBI file released after his death revealed that one hate letter, sent by a detractor in 1983, contained a live scorpion. Enclosed was a note that read, "Through your self sacrifice and dedication we may one day see this nation ruled by God instead of man. Kind of like Iran. Hoping you will die soon."

8. A Heart for Alcoholics

Rev. Falwell's father, Carey Falwell, worked as a bootlegger during the Great Depression and eventually died of liver problems caused by alcoholism. Although Falwell was morally opposed to drinking, he retained a soft spot for people who, like his father, had become trapped in alcoholism, and in 1959, he founded the Elim Home for recovering alcoholics, which exists to this day six miles north of Liberty's campus.

Kevin Roose's excellent book The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University goes on sale nationally next week, but that shouldn't stop you from pre-ordering it today! If you missed Kevin's post from yesterday (on 5 Rules at America's Holiest University), be sure to check that out here.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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