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Rockin' Rebuttals: 3 Non-Presidential Debates

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The Convention Confrontation: Gore Vidal vs. William F. Buckley, Jr. (1968)

The participants: By the late sixties, Gore Vidal was already a well-known and respected author and liberal political commentator; from the right, he was perfectly matched by conservative intellectual William F. Buckley, Jr., the founder of the National Review.


The venue: The year was 1968, and the times, according to numerous credible sources, were a-changin'. At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, as protesters and police clashed in the streets, ABC News organized a series of battles for the small screen that came to reflect the deep divisions emerging in America at the time. Amidst nationwide political tumult, the ideological foes had a captive audience of millions as they played out a vitriolic back-and-forth of ad hominem attacks unlike anything else that had been seen or heard on TV before.

The issues: With eight debates on ABC in total, four each at the Republican and Democratic Conventions, any political issue was fair game. However, the big issue on everyone's mind was, of course, the war in Vietnam. With over 500,000 troops fighting the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, the U.S. had a lot of chips on the table and nothing resembling a public consensus on how the cards should be played. It was in regards to the war that we get the debates' most memorable moments:

Buckley alleged some of the antiwar protesters outside were "pro-Nazi," and had "egg[ed] on other people to shoot American soldiers and American marines." Scratching his head, Vidal snapped back, "As far as I'm concerned the only sort of pro-Crypto Nazi I can think of is yourself." As you might expect, Buckley didn't take this well, calling Vidal a "queer" and threatening, "I'll sock you in the goddamned face and you'll stay plastered." As far as I know, even Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann have never (publicly) threatened each other with physical violence.

The outcome: Gore's and Buckley's attitudes towards one another never really improved, but no one in their right mind expected them to. As the two men waged their war of words, nastiness (and lawsuits) became predictably familiar. After Buckley's passing in February of 2008, Vidal excoriated the press' coverage of the death and told his deceased enemy to "RIP"¦in hell."

The Evolution Agitation: Thomas Henry Huxley vs. Samuel Wilberforce (1860)

huxley-gorillaThe participants: Thomas Huxley (left), grandfather of Brave New World author Aldous Huxley, was a self-educated agnostic and a close associate of Charles Darwin; Samuel Wilberforce was a bishop in the Church of England and a renowned public speaker who had openly condemned Charles Darwin's recently-published On the Origin of Species.


The venue: The Oxford University Museum of Natural History was the host of a meeting convened by the British Association for the Advancement of Science.


The issues: Hard as it may be to believe, evolution was hotly opposed before there was even a Kansas, much less a Kansas School Board. Indeed, Huxley himself was an opponent of the idea until Darwin made an effort, shortly before his most famous work was published, to convince his friend that natural selection was right. During the reading of a paper that cited Darwin's book, the well-known biologist Richard Owen incited a debate over the validity of the evolutionists' claims. Huxley stood up to respond, and before long an informal debate was scheduled. After a reportedly boring lecture by NYU professor John Draper, Huxley and Wilberforce were among those called upon to elaborate on their differing views.

wilberforceUnlike the aforementioned Kansas School Board and other proponents of "intelligent design," Wilberforce allegedly backed up his skepticism with scientific arguments. (I say "allegedly" because there's no known verbatim record of the exchange "“ just accounts in post-debate letters from those present.) However, science or no science, Wilberforce is remembered for just one rhetorical point he made. According to American Scientist magazine, the bishop asked Huxley whether "it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed descent from a monkey."


Huxley's alleged reply? "If then the question is put to me whether I would rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence and yet employs these faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape." Eat your heart out, Inherit the Wind.


The outcome: After Wilberforce and Huxley had finished this now-famous exchange, the captain of the H.M.S. Beagle, Admiral Robert FitzRoy, stood to denounce his former companion's book on religious grounds. He was followed by the botanist Joseph Hooker, who continued the arguments Huxley had begun on behalf of Darwin. After this, reports say that everyone peacefully and cheerfully went off to dinner together. Even though the debate ended without any clear resolution of who "won," history has declared Huxley and Hooker the winners.

The NAFTA Knockdown: Al Gore vs. Ross Perot (1993)

larry king logoThe participants: Al Gore, not yet in possession of an Academy Award or Nobel Peace Prize, was stuck in the dead-end job of Vice-President of the United States; Ross Perot had received 18.9 percent of the popular vote in the most recent presidential election, making him the most successful third-party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt.


The venue: The debate took up an episode of Larry King Live, the same show where Perot had declared his intention to run for the presidency a year and a half earlier. Someone has uploaded the debate in eight parts to YouTube (embedding is disabled), and it's more than a little eerie seeing how different all three men looked 16 years ago.

king gore perotThe issues: There was just one issue to debate "“ the North American Free Trade Agreement, a.k.a. NAFTA. Gore was in favor, while Perot was against. King preceded the debate by pointing out that, technically, it wasn't a debate, with no set time limits or other formal restrictions. Things got a bit volatile at times, especially after Gore insinuated that embracing Perot's ideas would be like asking for another Great Depression. With a new president in town and a record-size audience for a cable program, this was the perfect time for an even-handed debate about a serious policy issue. Shockingly, however, issues unrelated to the ever-so-thrilling nuts-and-bolts of trade policy are thought to have decided the end result.

The outcome: Perot lost. Political analysts at the time concluded that Gore was a more effective and controlled debater, and that Perot's temperament hindered his case. Despite what was considered a massive audience for cable, many of the newspapers covering the debate pointed out that it was for the benefit of only a few people: the 30 or so Congressmen unsure about the free trade legislation. NAFTA passed in the House of Representatives, 234-200, and in January 1, 1994 the agreement went into effect. However, Perot could claim one small victory from the evening: he had the most memorable line of the night. The debate is thought to have taken the phrase "giant sucking sound," which Perot coined during his '92 run for the presidency to refer to what people would hear coming from Mexico post-NAFTA, and cemented it into the lexicon.

The Thrilla in Manila: Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus (2009)



Just kidding.

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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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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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