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12 of the Weirdest Ballot Initiatives in American History

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It’s Election Day, where democracy gets a workout and where non-felons can exercise their free will to decide who gets to sit in comfortable appointed chairs. It’s also a time when voters are faced with occasionally ridiculous decisions courtesy of ballot initiatives, where private citizens who have collected enough signatures can offer up proposals for immediate resolution. Here are some of the strangest questions that have been put to voters.

1. SHOULD WE PROHIBIT TOXIC WASTE IN OUR DRINKING WATER?

“As usual, California voters are being presented with many citizen initiatives…Still another would forbid toxic-waste discharge into drinking water. It is being opposed by the industry, which claims the definition of ‘toxic’ is too broad.”

-- Park City Daily News, October 23, 1986 (Approved)

2. SHOULD A POLICE OFFICER GET TO WALK HIS BEAT WITH A VENTRILOQUIST'S DUMMY?

“Along with school vouchers, sales taxes and city charter revisions, voters in San Francisco will decide next Tuesday whether to allow a veteran police officer to walk his beat with a ventriloquist's dummy….Brendan O'Smarty, he of the laughing Irish eyes, whom Officer Geary picked out of a ventriloquist's catalogue after he was selected to work in a community policing program that encouraged officers to use 'creative and ingenious methods' to break down barriers between citizens and police. The hand-carved dummy cost $1,750 because Officer Geary wouldn't hear of the $700 molded particle board version.” (via @ClaraJeffery)

-- The New York Times, October 30, 1993  (Approved)

3. SHOULD WE GIVE $1 MILLION TO ONE RANDOM VOTER?

“A proposal to award $1 million in every general election to one lucky resident, chosen by lottery, simply for voting — no matter for whom — has qualified for the November ballot. Mark Osterloh, a political gadfly who is behind the initiative, the Arizona Voter Reward Act, is promoting it with the slogan, ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Vote!’"

-- The New York Times, July 17, 2006 (Defeated)

4. SHOULD WE TAKE OVER THE GRAND CANYON?

“When voters in Arizona go to the polls next month, they will be asked to decide a land ownership tug of war: Should the Grand Canyon belong to all Americans, or just the residents of Arizona?... A controversial ballot measure backed by Republicans in the state legislature is seeking sovereign control over millions of acres of federal land in the state, including the Grand Canyon.”

-- Reuters, October 23, 2012 (Defeated)

5. SHOULD DENVER SET UP A COMMISSION TO TRACK ALIENS?

“…an eccentric proposal was also rejected in the polls when voters in Denver opted against an initiative to track aliens from outer space. The proposal, known as initiative 300, would have involved setting up a commission to monitor aliens and a website to allow members of the public to report UFO sightings.”

-- The Guardian, November 3, 2010

6. SHOULD WE LET ROXIE THE MINIATURE PIG STAY?

“Roxie the potbellied pig will be moving to a new home now that Piqua voters have said she has worn out her welcome. Cynthia and Tim Gaston and their two children, who own the petite porker, said Wednesday they'll move rather than give Roxie up. On Tuesday, residents of the city of 20,600 people, about 30 miles northwest of Dayton in western Ohio, rejected a ballot proposal that would have allowed residents to keep miniature pigs as pets. The vote was 2,682 to 1,957.”

-- Dayton Daily News, November 4, 1993

7. SHOULD WE BAN SITTING ON THE SIDEWALK?

“Berkeley, among the most generous cities in the country in funding homeless services, is considering a daytime ban on sitting on the sidewalk in all commercial areas….The city currently prohibits lying on the sidewalk, but police and city officials said the law is ineffective because people sit up when officers walk by, then lie down again.”

-- San Francisco Chronicle, April 23, 2013 (Defeated)

8. SHOULD WE JUST START OUR OWN STATE?

“At Nan’s convenience store here in eastern Colorado, where the front door tells visitors that ‘Gun Control Is Hitting Your Target,’ the farmers, crop sprayers, mechanics and retirees who gather for morning coffee say they have had enough of the state and its Democratic leaders. They bristle at gun control laws and marijuana shops, green energy policies and steps to embrace gay marriage and illegal immigrants….So in November, this rural county and 10 others will hold a quixotic vote on whether to secede from Colorado and work to form their own state."

-- The New York Times, October 7, 2013 (Defeated)

9. SHOULD WE STOP SELLING THE EUROPEANS OUR HORSE MEAT?

“There’s also Proposition 6, prohibiting the sale of horse meat for human consumption. Each year, an estimated 10,000 California horses end up as gourmet steaks on the tables of France, Switzerland, Belgium, and Japan.”

-- Lodi News-Sentinel, November 3, 1998 (Approved)

10. SHOULD WE BAN AIRBOATS AT NIGHT (OR IS THAT A HATE LAW)?

“For more than a decade, a dispute has simmered over airboat noise on Orange Lake, Newnan’s Lake and other water bodies in Alachua County. The battle revved up in 2009 and will go full throttle on Election Day as voters decide on a proposed nighttime airboat curfew banning the boats on all water bodies in the county from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m…The current advertising campaign includes a recent television spot comparing the curfew ordinance to a 'hate' law promoting discrimination."

-- The Gainesville Sun, October 18, 2010 (Approved)

11. SHOULD WE BUILD A NEW HOUSE FOR THE PREGNANT ELEPHANT?

“In Cincinnati, zoo officials have threatened to ship off its four Asian elephants, one of them pregnant, if voters reject a $52 million tax levy for a new Elephant House and parking lot.”

-- The Associated Press, November 1, 1997 (Defeated)

12. SHOULD WE EXIST?

“Voters in tiny Castlewood, Virginia, meanwhile, will decide whether to vote the town – and the attendant town taxes – out of existence.”

-- The Associated Press, November 1, 1997 (Approved—the town effectively abolished itself and was absorbed into Russell County.)

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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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