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14 Presidential Facts About Veep

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The comedy Veep stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Vice President Selina Meyer, a woman surrounded by foul-mouthed staff members dictating all of her actions, all the way to the Presidency. It was created by Armando Iannucci, who created the British political comedy series The Thick Of It, and wrote and directed the Oscar-nominated spinoff film In the Loop (2009). Despite Veep finally taking home the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series for its fourth season, Iannucci left the show. Here are some facts about the series to read before you fall asleep on C-SPAN.

1. ARMANDO IANNUCCI PURPOSELY DIDN'T WATCH OTHER AMERICAN POLITICAL SHOWS WHEN HE DEVELOPED VEEP.

He didn't want to be affected by them, but he had seen and heard enough to notice what was missing to come up with a "starting point" for his new show. "We went into [Veep] thinking that the portrayal of Washington had either been really melodramatic in the dark arts and corruption or heroic and noble and the president is also a qualified jet pilot who can defend America from an alien invasion."

2. LYNDON JOHNSON'S CAREER WAS AN INFLUENCE.

Iannucci read The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro's four-volume series on the life of the former POTUS/VPOTUS. “He found himself sitting in his office just drumming his fingers thinking, I’m doing nothing. But three years later he is president," Iannucci explained. "That’s what I thought was the funny side: Somebody who has a certain amount of influence finding himself diminished but going, ‘No no no, I’m important here.’”

3. JONAH RYAN IS BASED ON A REAL GUY.

Iannucci based the character of Jonah Ryan on a man he met at the White House. When he asked the staffer if they could meet for research purposes, the man made a big deal about how busy he was, even though President Obama's personal assistant and other senior White House officials had made the time. According to Matt Walsh, who plays Mike McLintock, Jonah was originally written as a "fat, short, heavy smoker." After Timothy Simons auditioned, that changed.

4. THEY GOT SOME INTEL BY GETTING D.C. STAFFERS DRUNK.

Actors Matt Walsh, Timothy Simons, Tony Hale (Gary Walsh), and Reid Scott (Dan Egan) took some young White House staffers out for drinks to learn more about the inner workings of Washington, D.C. Scott said they were "only too willing to spill everything" about their work. "Two phones" and "pencil-fu*k" were some of the terms they picked up from the beer summits.

5. SUE WILSON COULD WORK AT THE DMV.

When actress Sufe Bradshaw was trying to figure out the best way to play her no-nonsense, executive assistant character Sue Wilson, she remembered the Department of Motor Vehicles. "DMV workers are strait-laced and go by the book and they don’t have much time because there’s so much to do in a day," Bradshaw noted.

6. IMPROVISATION IS A PART OF THE WRITING PROCESS.

The first step in the writing process is a draft of a formal script. When the actors rehearse the scenes, they work in their own lines. The staff writers take notes and use some of the actors' additions and put those into the shooting script. After filming a few takes off of the final script, they shoot a "fun run" for the actors to ad-lib further.

7. HBO WANTED SELINA MEYER TO HAVE MORE OF A POLITICAL PURPOSE.

After screening the first episode, the network expressed some concerns. "We need to feel she has a set of beliefs—an identity, even if she compromises it, or alters it," HBO told Iannucci in a conference call. This led to Meyer introducing a desire for filibuster reform in the second installment. She also was less inept at her job.

8. THE CHARACTERS PURPOSELY LOOK UNFASHIONABLE.

Iannucci instructed production design and the costume department to dress the offices and characters to be 10 years behind New York, as he feels that is the case with the actual offices and wardrobes in Washington, D.C. Dan Egan, however, gets to look three years ahead of everyone else (making him only seven years behind New Yorkers).

9. MEYER'S TITANIUM-ENFORCED BOX WAS INSPIRED BY BARBARA BOXER.

As part of her research on politicians, Louis-Dreyfus discovered that the California senator stands on a box when speaking.

10. SOMETIMES GARY WALSH IS LOOKING INTO HIS BAG SO THAT TONY HALE CAN HIDE A LAUGH.

When Tony Hale is looking at the ceiling or looking through his bag, he's being "awful and completely unprofessional" and trying not to ruin a take by cracking up. While Hale is usually the worst at keeping a straight face, Matt Walsh admitted he breaks character the most during the limo scenes.

11. BEN CAFFERTY COULD HAVE BEEN KENT DAVISON.

After reading for the role of Kent Davison (which eventually went to Gary Cole), Kevin Dunn asked if he could try out for Ben Cafferty, the President's Chief of Staff. He joined the cast in season two.

12. IT TOOK A WHILE FOR LOUIS-DREYFUS TO REALIZE SHE HAD WORKED WITH KEVIN DUNN BEFORE.

After wrapping up a day of shooting Veep, Louis-Dreyfus randomly found a Seinfeld rerun on TV. She spotted her co-star, Dunn, on the episode. Since Louis-Dreyfus' character Elaine Benes wasn't in the Seinfeld pilot, the first episode she worked on was "Male Unbonding," which featured Dunn as Joel, the friend Jerry tries to break up with.

13. THEY ALWAYS SAY NO TO POLITICAL GUEST STARS.

Iannucci said he frequently gets requests from politicians who want to make cameos, but that he has a policy of saying no because it might tip off Selina's or the POTUS' political ideology.

14. IT'S WATCHED BY SOME SUPREME COURT JUSTICES.

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Elena Kagan told Louis-Dreyfus that she would have lunch once a week with fellow justice Antonin Scalia, where they would talk about Veep

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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
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science
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]

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