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The Late Movies: Absurd Campaign Ads

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I live with a self-confessed TV marathoner, and right now we're plowing our way through The West Wing. Spending all this time in Martin Sheen's White House has me a little angry with Rob Lowe for the sway he holds over my girlfriend and a little depressed with the real-word politicians we've got. Aside from the occasional faux pas, Team Bartlett ran a clean, positive re-election campaign in seasons 3 and 4, with none of the absurdity and, in some cases, sheer insanity, you'll see in these ads.

Hendon for Lieutenant Governor
This is audio only, but you really don't need a visual to get some LOLs out of it. Illinois State Senator Rickey Hendon is running for Illinois lieutenant governor, and has been running this ad on radio stations across the state. The audio quality is poor, but you can get the gist. We're listening in on a house party where conversation is focused on three things:

1. Hendon's accomplishments, like getting free bus rides for seniors and stopping "them fools" from putting up red light cameras.
2. Where the pretty girls are up in here.
3. Twinkies.

Robinson for Congress
Vernon Robinson is infamous in North Carolina for two failed Congressional runs and the ads that went with them.

This one manages to be racist, homophobic, xenophobic and completely off-your-meds insane in less than 60 seconds. Kind of impressive. Makes you wonder why voters in NC's 13th district didn't want "the black Jesse Helms" to lead them back to the traditional values of a fictional television show.

Power to the People vs. Give Peace a Chance
This is a little bit of campaign ad, a little bit of music video and a whole lot of weirdness all rolled into one. Former U.S. senator Mike Gravel (Alaska), you might remember, ran as a libertarian candidate for president in 2008. This is the first in a series of campaign videos/American Idol audition tapes he made that year.

McKenna for Coroner
Eighty-year-old Frank Minyard has been the Orleans Parish coroner for almost four decades. During his tenure, he ran into a spot of trouble when he allegedly removed bone pieces and corneas from bodies and gave them transplant centers without consent, and he was sued for it. His opponent in the upcoming election, Dwight McKenna, concluded from the lawsuit that Minyard is a Frankenstein-esque madman who's running a black market body parts ring from his office and turned his conspiracy theory into a great bit of television.

Fiorina for U.S. Senate
If you haven't seen this one yet, you're spending your time in the wrong parts of the Internet. Carly Fiorina pulls the ultimate character assassination on her opponent Tom Campbell and accuses him of being a demonic sheep with death ray eyes.

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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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May 23, 2017
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