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What Is the Iowa Straw Poll?

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In a little over a month, Republican presidential hopefuls will meet in Ames to square off in the Iowa Straw Poll. What the heck is a straw poll, and what do the results mean? Let’s take a look at some questions about the event that’s going to start dominating the political news soon.

What exactly is the Iowa Straw Poll?

© JOHN GRESS/Reuters/Corbis

It’s sort of like a giant party crossed with a political popularity contest. Since 1979 Republicans have gathered in Ames the August before primary season gets rolling to cast votes for their favorite presidential hopefuls. (The straw poll is only held for election cycles in which there isn’t a GOP incumbent, so there wasn’t a shindig in 1983, 1991, or 2003.)

How do the candidates set up this party?

Here’s where things get really interesting.

This year’s poll will take place at Iowa State University’s Hilton Coliseum. The candidates will have giant air-conditioned tents and attractions set up around the arena to help lure in potential supporters. How do they figure out whose tent goes where? The candidates bid for the right to put their tents in the choicest spots closest to the arena. A spot costs at least $15,000, and this year Ron Paul took the most coveted real estate with a $31,000 bid.

What goes on in the tents?

Obviously, there’s some political rhetoric. There’s also a lot of food. And rides! "Fairest Wheel" image courtesy of

If every existing story about the Iowa Straw Poll is any indication, state law requires anyone describing the event in print to use the terms “carnival-like” or “county fair” at some point. The candidates and their supporters give speeches inside their air-conditioned tents, but they also hand out free chow, often barbecue, ice cream, and/or fried chicken.

Voters also get freebies; in 1999 Dan Quayle gave away bundles of raw corn. Pat Buchanan gave away potholders and bottles of barbecue sauce.

The tents aren’t just about food and stump speeches, though. There’s also entertainment. The county fair comparisons seem particularly apt here, as candidates often trot out musical acts that hit their commercial peaks decades earlier. For example, in 1999 Lamar Alexander trotted out Crystal “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” Gayle. Steve Forbes countered with Ronnie “Smoky Mountain Rain” Milsap.

How many convention delegates are at stake here?

Zero. While the straw poll gets a lot of media hype, the results aren’t binding and don’t directly help the winner get closer to the Republican presidential nomination.

So what’s the point of all this hoopla, then?

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The Iowa Straw Poll doesn’t help divvy up convention delegates, but it has its uses. The event is generally seen as a good early test for candidates’ organizational strength in the state. Since February’s Iowa caucuses will be one of the major early events in the road to next year’s Republican nomination, having a strong organization with traction in the state is important for hopeful candidates. A disappointing showing in the straw poll can raise serious concerns about a campaign’s future.

Where does all that cash go?

Directly into the coffers of the Republican Party of Iowa. Whatever you think of the predictive value of the poll or its significance in the election cycle, you’ve got to hand it to the state party for coming up with a heck of a fundraising idea. On top of those fat fees to set up a tent, the party also pulls in an admission fee from each voter who attends the poll. This year’s tickets go for $30.

Do voters really spend $30 apiece to vote in a non-binding straw poll?

Some voters would argue that $30 is a bargain price for free barbecue, fried chicken, and performances by obscure musical acts. Most voters would not, though. That’s why candidates often pick up all or most of the tab for their supporters’ tickets.

Candidates do more than just pay for tickets. Since voters have to actually show up in Ames to cast their ballots, candidates bus in their supporters to help stack the deck. When Steve Forbes threw gobs of money at the contest in 1999, he brought in 4,000 supporters on board 85 chartered buses in an effort to derail George W. Bush’s candidacy.

Does the straw poll do a good job of predicting the eventual winner of the Iowa caucuses?

Sort of. The Iowa Straw Poll has been held five times: in 1979, 1987, 1995, 1999, and 2007. In 1979 and 1999 the winners (George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, respectively) went on to take the top spot in the caucuses. In 1995, Bob Dole tied for first with Phil Gramm at 2,582 votes apiece before winning the caucuses. In 1987 Pat Robertson beat Dole and George H.W. Bush in the straw poll but fell to Dole in the caucuses, and in the last election cycle Mitt Romney won the straw poll but lost to Mike Huckabee when it counted.

Does a poor performance in the Iowa Straw Poll doom a candidate?

Not necessarily. While marginal candidates who struggle in the contest often decide to call it quits upon leaving Ames, other candidates have begun to dismiss the importance of the event. John McCain ignored the poll in 2007 and finished in 10th place with 0.7 percent of the vote, behind such luminaries as Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter. As you probably remember, he ended up winning the nomination anyway.

Mitt Romney is taking a similar tack this year. Romney threw millions of dollars at the 2007 straw poll and won an easy victory over second-place finisher Mike Huckabee, who went on to win the caucuses. This year, Romney has announced that he’s skipping the Iowa Straw Poll in favor of focusing his time and resources on the primaries and caucuses that count. Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman are bagging this year’s Iowa Straw Poll as well.

How reliable are the actual voting results?

If the reports are true, the Iowa Straw Poll results have historically been at least as reliable as those from your average student council election. Prior to 1999, voters didn’t even have to be from Iowa, so candidates could bus or fly their supporters in from out of state to tilt the odds in their favor.

Voting early and often was another possibility in earlier versions of the poll. Voters would get their hand stamped to indicate that they had voted, but some would just visit the bathroom, wash off the stamp, and cast a second ballot. (This trick was particularly prevalent in 1995.) Eventually organizers wised up to this chicanery and switched to indelible ink; starting in 2007 voters had to dip their thumbs in permanent ink to show they had cast their ballots.

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Even these anti-fraud measures haven’t totally quieted objections from candidates and their supporters. In 2007 Ron Paul supporters claimed that the voting machines used in the polls were rigged and cost their man a win.

Wait, where does the term "straw poll" come from, anyway?

PBS answered that question in 1999, citing William Safire's New Political Dictionary. In the 17th century, writer John Selden was credited with this quote: "Take a straw and throw it up into the air—you may see by that which way the wind is. More solid things do not show the complexion of the times so well."

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]