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5 Famous Filibusters

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On Wednesday, after a mere 13 hours, Senator Rand Paul ended his filibuster against the nomination of John Brennan for CIA director. While the thought of more than half a day of nonstop speaking may make the glossophobes among us (consider my hand raised) blanch, it’s just a drop in the bucket for filibusterers. Here are five of the most famous filibusters in history—all of which are hours longer than Paul’s baker's dozen.

1. Strom Thurmond, 1957

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At 24 hours and 18 minutes, Sen. Strom Thurmond still holds the record for the longest uninterrupted filibuster, and for good reason: he came prepared. See, the filibusterer can’t leave the floor for any reason, not even a bathroom break. So to thwart his bladder, Thurmond took advance steam baths to sweat out all excess fluids, and then made an intern stand by with a bucket during the filibuster, just in case.

So what was the offending bill that Strom felt so strongly about? The Civil Rights Act of 1957. It passed anyway.

2. Huey Long, 1935

Huey Long of Louisiana was the master of the filibuster, reading everything from Shakespeare to recipes just to hear the sound of his own voice. His most famous oratory came in 1935, a ploy to require Senate confirmation for the National Recovery Administration’s senior employees. For 15.5 hours, Long analyzed every section of the Constitution, then noticed that a good chunk of the room was either asleep or totally zoned out. Long then suggested to Vice President John Nance Garner that everyone should be forced to pay attention, but Garner was unmoved, replying, “That would be unusual cruelty under the Bill of Rights.” The same night, Long started reading recipes for fried oysters and potlikkers. Finally, around 4 a.m., he could no longer ignore the call of nature and ended the filibuster.

3. Alfonse D'Amato, 1992

Senator Alfonse D’Amato of New York is no stranger to a lengthy filibuster—he falls just shy of Strom Thurmond when it comes to long-windedness, once talking for 23 hours and 30 minutes to delay debate on a 1986 military spending bill. He started reading the phone book during that one. But it’s D’Amato’s 15-hour filibuster in 1992 that kept his fellow lawmakers entertained: He broke into “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way)” as part of his talkathon to stop 800-plus jobs from being moved from New York to Mexico.

4. Bob La Follette, 1917

Library of Congress

Wisconsin Senator Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette nearly incited a riot with his filibuster in 1917. With just 26 hours left of the 64th Congress, La Follette decided to filibuster to stop legislation that would arm merchant ships against the Germans. When the presiding officer opted to recognize only those who had opposed the filibuster, LaFollette lost his temper and came close to throwing a brass spittoon. As some senators circled around Fighting Bob to calm him down, Senator Harry Lane noticed that Senator Ollie James of Kentucky  was packing a pistol. He decided that if James tried to draw it, he would use his own smuggled weapon, a steel file, and stab James in the neck with its sharp point. Luckily, it didn’t come to that. After declaring that he would have to be removed from the floor—"I will continue on this floor until I complete my statement unless somebody carries me off, and I should like to see the man who will do it"—La Follette was finally convinced to take his seat. He was one of just six senators to vote against a declaration of war a few weeks later.

5. Bob La Follette, 1908

You'd think La Follette would have avoided the stall tactic entirely after flirting with a fatal filibuster in '08. As we saw earlier this week, filibustering requires food. So sometime around 1 a.m. on May 30, La Follette asked a page to get him a turkey sandwich and a glass of milk mixed with raw eggs for fortification. Though perhaps it was an honest mistake, the Senate website suggests that the kitchen staff, annoyed at having to work around the clock for the filibuster, purposely used eggs that had gone over. La Follette noticed that the drink tasted suspect after taking a big gulp, but the damage had been done: Shortly thereafter, the senator began feeling sick and started sweating profusely. He stepped down from filibustering around 7 a.m. after 18 hours and 23 minutes at the pulpit. Tests on the drink showed that its contents were so toxic that they would have killed anyone who drank the entire glass.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]