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World War I Centennial: Teddy Roosevelt Runs Again

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.

With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 29th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

August 7, 1912: Wilson vs. Roosevelt vs. Taft vs. Debs

[Note: Let's pretend this ran yesterday.]

Roosevelt, 1912/

August 7, 1912, was a busy day in one of the most complicated presidential elections in U.S. history. The election of 1912 would see not two, not three, but four presidential candidates face off in a fierce, but genteel, contest that divided the country along class and geographic lines. In fact, the first divisions occurred within the political parties.

After the assassination of William McKinley in September 1901, his vice-president Teddy Roosevelt assumed the presidency, bringing his characteristic vigor and enthusiasm to his first term, which he devoted to his cherished social reforms. Since he entered the White House so early in the term of office, however, in 1904 TR won reelection with a promise not to seek another full term in 1908; instead he bestowed his blessing on William Howard Taft, the secretary of war, as his successor in the Republican Party.

Roosevelt on safari in Central Africa/Getty Images

Once he was out of the White House, the restless, larger-than-life TR, true to manic form, went on a couple safaris in Africa, met the crowned heads of Europe, and spoke to crowded university audiences in England. But amid all this frenetic activity he also had time for a falling-out with Taft over the direction of the Republican Party. While TR wanted the party to continue on the “progressive” course he trail-blazed with more social reforms, Taft aligned with the “conservative” wing of the party, which was less concerned with reform and more concerned about bolstering U.S. industry with tariffs. TR was especially infuriated by Taft’s decision to break up U.S. Steel, which TR had exempted from his own presidential trust-busting.

Thus it was no surprise when TR came charging out of his brief “retirement” to campaign for his vision of the Republican Party during the congressional elections of 1910, with speeches supporting progressive candidates across the country. But the obvious lack of unity worked against the Republican Party, which suffered multiple defeats in 1910. After that, TR laid low – or as low as a blustering polymath genius could – for a while. But by 1912 he was ready to run for president again.

After failing to win the Republican nomination in June 1912, TR left the Republican Party to found his own Progressive Party. The Progressive Party held its own convention from August 5-7, 1912, when 2,000 enthusiastic delegates delivered the foregone conclusion – nominating Roosevelt for president. The rift in the Republican Party was now official.

Wilson and Taft/Getty Images

Although the election still lay three months in the future, the split in the Republican Party ended up handing the White House to the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, who also received the official notification that he had been nominated at his summer home Sea Girt, NJ, on August 7, 1912. (The convention, held in Baltimore in June 1912, had chosen Wilson over his rival, James Beauchamp Clark, after a stirring speech by William Jennings Bryan.)

At a time when most Americans respected academics, Wilson’s training as a political scientist and experience as president of Princeton from 1902 to 1910 gave him an air of calm, even-handed expertise, which he consolidated with his term as governor of New Jersey (1911-1913), when he adopted many of the progressive policies popular with Republican voters. And indeed, Wilson’s first term would be devoted almost entirely to domestic policies, including the formation of the Federal Reserve and the imposition of the federal income tax. But he is probably most widely remembered for bringing the U.S. into the Great War – which was something few, if anyone, even suspected was coming in 1912.

Debs/Getty Images

As if all this wasn’t complicated enough, there was also a socialist in the mix in 1912: Eugene V. Debs of Indiana, who was already famous as a founding member of the International Workers of the World, better known as the “wobblies” – a radical labor organization that rejected the compromise approach advocated by the American Federation of Labor. Although he was a marginal candidate compared to the other three, failing to win any states or electoral college votes, Debs did manage to win 6% of the popular vote – the most votes ever garnered by a socialist candidate in U.S. history, reflecting the volatile social and economic dynamics of the time. Debs would become a hero of pacifists with his outspoken opposition to American participation in the coming Great War, which earned him a 10-year jail sentence under the new Espionage Act of 1917.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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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]