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16 Podcasts to Help You Make Sense of the 2016 Elections

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For the next 15 months or so, we’ll all be inundated with news and chatter surrounding the 2016 presidential race. Whether you’re hungry for in-depth analysis or just want to hear about the most buzzworthy stories, there’s probably a podcast to suit your needs. 

This week I share a few shows that tackle politics from all angles (preferably with little to no screaming). For other podcast recs, visit the archive. Feel free to share suggestions via the comments or Twitter.

THE FRONTRUNNERS

Popular, insightful podcasts about politics 

Slate’s Political Gabfest
If I want to hear intelligent, insider-y political discussions, this is where I look first. The hosts are excitable but civil, making for episodes that enlighten and rarely bore. 

Common Sense with Dan Carlin
Podcast superstar Carlin (Hardcore History) specializes in digging below the surface. Unlike many other hosts, he treats all political viewpoints with equal scrutiny. 

The Young Turks
This bold and lively show airs weekdays and is available as audio or video. Hosts are often drawn to provocative political news, but they throw in pop culture stories from time to time, too. (Note: The language can get pretty salty, as I discovered while listening in the car with my toddler.)

The Majority Report with Sam Seder
Described as “American politics for the non-brain dead or knuckle draggers,” Seder’s show features an array of political analysts, experts, and opinionated listeners. Those who prefer to live in real time and/or participate can listen live at majority.fm

Ken Rudin’s Political Junkie
Rudin, best known for hosting the popular “Political Junkie” segment on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, now runs his own site and show. His passion shines through, and he nabs interesting guests, like GOP strategist Roger Stone (who offered insight on what makes Donald Trump tick, for better or worse). 

THE NEWSMAKERS

Podcasts featuring recent headlines and timely, lively debates 

The Ticket 2016
Radio station KUT partners with the Texas Tribune for this weekly show that follows national political campaigns with a dash of Texas flavor.

KCRW’s Left, Right & Center
Here’s another fine show from the station, in which experts from both ends of the political spectrum dissect the latest headlines. 

DecodeDC
This podcast isn’t as concerned with sharing scoops as it is with telling a solid, engaging story. Episodes have addressed the Supreme Court, Iran, and … the intersection of politics and bourbon. 

LIKE THE SITE? HEAR THE PODCAST.

Political shows from popular publications

Politico: The Scrum
This show is a good destination for political interviews and insider chatter. Last week’s ep addressed “Trump fatigue,” and a recent interview was dubbed “50 Shades of Barney Frank.” 

The Federalist Radio Hour
Hosted by TheFederalist.com publisher Ben Domenech, this show runs Monday through Friday. It excels in explaining big topics—a recent episode broke down the Hillary Clinton email story—and highlights its reporters’ latest pieces. 

The Huffington Post: So That Happened
Hosts of this weekly show promise “an alternative to the Sunday morning shows they’ve stopped watching,” with an emphasis on water-cooler topics and recognizable political figures (like senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders).

New Yorker: The Political Scene
Hosted by New Yorker executive editor Dorothy Wickenden, this show specializes in smart, taut discussions about the political landscape. Episodes usually run about 15-20 minutes. 

AND DON’T FORGET …

Political podcasts with unique angles 

Real Time with Bill Maher
Don’t have HBO? You can still hear Maher’s show each week as a podcast, along with “Overtime” interviews and bonus episodes. 

We the People
Produced by the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, this weekly show digs into constitutional issues with the help of high-profile politicians and experts. 

The Pollsters
This show is all about the numbers. Each week, hosts Margie Omero (a Democrat) and Kristen Soltis Anderson (a Republican) break down the latest data and polls alongside special guests. 

Slate’s Whistlestop
If the current presidential race sounds wacky, just wait until you hear some of the stories on this podcast, which highlights great and not-so-great moments in presidential campaign history.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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