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The Most Egregious Election in American History

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Editor's Note: Yesterday, we put up a story from our archives about hero-worship of Rutherford B. Hayes in Paraguay. "Repost old articles about Rutherford B. Hayes" week continues with Jenny Drapkin's look back at the election of 1876.

No matter what you think of the current political process, no election in American history is more shameful than the Hayes/Tilden election of 1876.

Hayes vs. Tilden

Even though the election of 1824 is known as the Corrupt Bargain, the most corrupt bargain of them all happened in 1876, when a fairly honest politician, Rutherford B. Hayes, compromised the fate of millions of freed slaves in a backroom deal to become president. How this came to pass after Hayes lost the popular vote by 3 percent and almost certainly lost the electoral vote was a categorical perversion of democracy.

Picture 151.pngBut it was a strange time in America. The country was still healing from the Civil War, and Reconstruction had been going so poorly for so long that many Northerners no longer cared about rebuilding the South. The Republicans, a.k.a the Party of the Lincoln, had been in control of the White House for 16 years, thanks in part to the votes of black men below the Mason-Dixon line, who risked their lives by showing up at the polls. Lynching was on the rise, and only the presence of federal troops in the South kept the violence under control.

But the Republicans weren't just a party of saints. They also stayed in power through a well-organized, corrupt party machine, which readily made cash and ballot boxes disappear. After a series of scandals, many voters wanted them out of office. And so in 1876, both the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, and his opponent Samuel Tilden expected that Tilden—the Democrat—would win. In fact, as the sun set on the eve of the election, both men went to bed believing that Tilden had carried the day.

Little did they know that in middle of the night, party operatives would be busy making sure that every vote did not count. To be fair, the Democrats had henchmen of their own, but the Republicans were much more effective. In the weeks to come, fraud, bribery, and intimidation left the results of three states in question—Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida. If Hayes somehow managed to take all three states, he would win the presidency by one electoral vote.

Picture 142.pngSince there was no provision in the Constitution for a completely botched election, both state and federal governments started making up new rules as they went along. Eventually, Congress agreed that the election would be resolved in a 15-man committee, consisting of five Senators, five members of the House, and five Supreme Court Justices. At first, the deadlocked committee got nowhere, but then a backroom deal was struck: Southern Democrats would support Hayes for president if he agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South, ending Reconstruction and leaving African Americans to fend for themselves. Although Hayes acquiesced, he didn't really win. He was a lame duck for his entire presidency and became known as "His Fraudulency" and Rutherfraud B. Hayes."

But the biggest losers were ultimately African Americans in the South. The aftermath of the election gave rise to the Jim Crow laws, and so in a bitter twist of fate, Southern blacks became second-class citizens in order to keep the Party of Lincoln in power.  It would take 90 years and one Civil Rights Movement to undo the events of 1876.

[This probably marks the end of "Repost old articles about Rutherford B. Hayes week." It's a short week.]

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]