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Knope-Newport and 6 Other Memorable TV Elections

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Image credit: Knope2012.com

Tonight's season finale of Parks and Recreation will feature one of the most hotly contested elections since Truman defeated Dewey. While we wait to see whether Leslie Knope trumps Bobby Newport for a seat on the Pawnee City Council, here are some of our other favorite TV election episodes.

1. Cheers

After Boston City Councilman Kevin Fogarty wins the support of the Cheers gang after a few mindless clichés ("I'm a hard worker, and I take a stand...on the issues of the day...the things that concern you and your family the most."), Dr. Crane bets them that he could get a trained monkey on the ballot and win 10% of the vote. With no simians handy he instead collects signatures and gets naïve bumpkin Woody Boyd into the City Council race. Woody unwittingly aces an interview with a reporter who misinterprets his farming anecdotes as clever political analogies. (Frasier's prescient advice: Just "say the word 'change' about 100 times.") Woody goes on to win the election, and every time Frasier closes his eyes he has visions of a bumbling President Boyd pushing the Big Button and starting World War III.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IgEIDGk8JhY

2. Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

Uncle Philip Banks is running for Circuit Court Judge, but his opponent – incumbent Judge Carl Robinson – is running a smear campaign, calling Uncle Phil “soft on crime” in TV commercials. But Phil refuses to fight dirty and resolves to stick to the issues. The womanizing, slightly sleazy Robinson (played by the inimitable Sherman Hemsley) wins by the largest margin in recent history. All is not lost for Uncle Phil, however, as Robinson soon keels over from a heart attack and Banks is appointed to the bench as his replacement.

3. The Dick Van Dyke Show

During the Camelot years of the early 1960s, Rob and Laura Petrie were often described as the John and Jackie Kennedy of television. That point was reinforced by the writers of The Dick Van Dyke Show in the episode entitled “The Making of a Councilman.” Rob had reluctantly entered the race for a seat on the New Rochelle City Council (“reluctant” because he felt he wasn’t well-versed on the issues) and found himself the toast of the local media and influential women’s clubs strictly due to his good looks and ready wit, as well as his beautiful, elegant wife. His opponent, played by nerdy Wally Cox, possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of everything from local high school athletics to urban redevelopment.

After a press conference, Rob began to suspect that he was running on his “smile,” especially since the most probing question he was asked by the media was a fawning “How tall are you?” Morey Amsterdam even worked in a sly mention of Richard Nixon, further solidifying the Kennedy connection. (Spoiler alert: Rob won the election. But the TV announcer continually mispronounced his surname.)

4. Designing Women

Who doesn’t relish a good Julia Sugarbaker “Terminator”-style rant? And it was obvious throughout her debate with incumbent councilman Wilson Brickett (in “The Candidate” episode) that she was spoiling for a major eruption. Conservative Brickett thought that taxpayer dollars in his school district were wasted on “petticoat sports” and “screwball curriculums (sic)” such as dance and other fine arts. Add that to his pro-gun stance and there wasn’t one of Julia’s buttons he didn’t manage to push. Her classic meltdown was insightful and entertaining, but it cost her the election, of course:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fy8Ebvunt58

5. Frasier

Frasier Crane had no better luck with elections after he moved to Seattle (and his own series). Having twice lost his bid as president of his condo board, he got the bright idea of having his father, Martin, run in his place. Martin was an affable chap, well-liked by the other residents of the Elliott Bay Towers, and if he got elected then Frasier could effectively use him to get his own policies in place. Martin did win the election, and Frasier worked out a careful series of hand signals with him to guide his responses when dealing with tenant complaints. But power went to Martin’s head and he ignored Frasier’s signals and his advice and started implementing his own ideas instead. Or, as Frasier succinctly put it, “Well, well, well - the puppet thinks he’s a real boy!”

6. Green Acres

Oliver Wendell Douglas has had it up to here (my hand is under my chin) with the deplorable road conditions in Hooterville. Come to think of it, there are many other services supposedly provided by the State that are woefully inadequate, in his opinion. Being the civic-minded citizen he is, Douglas does some research to find out exactly who his State Representative is. Turns out it's Ben Hanks, who stops by Hooterville once every four years (right before election time) to pass out official Ben Hanks crab legs, balloons, toupees, enchiladas, gold watches, baby cribs, you name it. Everyone in Hooterville supports kindly, big-hearted Ben Hanks and they very vocally denounce Mr. Douglas (while munching on their Ben Hanks cotton candy) when he finds out that Hanks has padded the State payroll with a host of his relatives and attempts to blow the whistle during a town meeting (held just prior to election time).
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Tell us about these and your other favorite TV Election Day memories!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

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]

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