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A Brief History of Political Halloween Masks (and What They Tell Us About the Election)

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You can't visit a Halloween store without seeing the vinyl visages of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Dressing up as the incumbent president on October 31 dates back to the 1960s at least, though some beloved political figures, like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, have been imitated long after their administrations. Debating whether to dress up as your favorite presidential candidate this year? Read more about political Halloween masks before you cast your vote.

1. The Election Before the Election

Most Halloween masks are produced overseas in January or February, so costume companies have to predict which candidates will face off long before the primaries. Scott Morris, owner of Morris Costumes, the world's largest costume wholesaler, started placing orders for this year's festivities back in November 2011.

The same guesswork has to be done when predicting the year's "it" costumes: Morris studies upcoming blockbusters and animated features, including the directorial and star power behind the films, to place the next year's order. "The good thing about political masks is that you know you can keep selling the elected president's mask for at least four years," Morris says. "You just hope you bought more of the right one."

2. But Don't Worry, Someone Will Buy That John Kerry Mask

Even if a costume company makes a mistake and overbuys an unpopular political mask, there's a special place where someone will buy anything. And that place is called the Internet. "I don't get it. I don't know what people could possibly be doing with them," says Morris. "But there's a buyer for everything in this world." 

3. Not All Presidents Have Mask Appeal

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Political masks are especially popular in an election year, but not all presidential masks are equally popular. Even decades after Watergate, most Americans have seen a Richard Nixon mask. A customer recently asked Morris where he could purchase a John F. Kennedy mask. (Psst! Here are a few on eBay.) But no one wants to trick or treat dressed up like Gerald Ford.

Mask appeal is partly a combination of being physically distinct and fun to caricature. It also comes from staying in the spotlight. An outgoing personality—or even a scandal—is a great way to keep your likeness on sale at a costume store. "I'll be selling Bill Clinton masks for the next 30 or 40 years!" Morris says.

Sometimes Halloween glory isn't just for the commander-in-chief. First Lady Michelle Obama and former First Lady Hillary Clinton both have their own masks. Soft-spoken former First Lady Laura Bush was left out of the fun.

(Interesting tidbit: Political masks of women don't sell as well as those of men for a few reasons. One reason is that there just aren't as many female politicians or masks of them. Another is that women very rarely wear Halloween masks, which even Morris admits aren't the most comfortable accessory.)

4.The Spectacle Is Political

We wondered if Halloween partygoers in this divisive political climate are more likely to dress up as candidates they love or hate. Morris believes that most people dress up as politicians they love, despite the fact that Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein masks have been popular in recent decades. A recent Psychology Today story posits that adults are "more likely to wear masks that convey fear than admiration."

Either way, dressing up as a politician shows an emotional investment in that person. "Halloween is transgressive at its heart, so it's the perfect holiday for political satire," says Lesley Bannatyne, author of Halloween Nation: Behind the Scenes of America's Fright Night.

Because costume companies need lead time for production, they can't immediately react to the most topical political gaffes come late October. Fortunately, creative revelers can. "I counted 63 shotgun-toting Sarah Palins at the 2008 NYC Village Halloween parade," Bannatybe says. "I expect to see endangered Big Birds and binders full of women this year."

5. An American Masktime

Though a quick Internet search yields masks of the British royals and former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Morris says that political Halloween masks stay national. After all, who wants to have to explain his mask to people who aren't well-versed in foreign affairs? Certainly not the guy at the haunted house trying to pick up the woman dressed as sexy Eleanor Roosevelt. It stands to reason that Americans are most focused on who's going to run their home country, and buyer behavior at Halloween stores may be as accurate as the polls. According to the national chain Spirit Halloween, mask sales have accurately predicted the winning presidential candidate for every election since 1996. As of last month, Obama had a comfortable 64-36% sales lead. (Of course, that was before his disastrous performance in the first debate.)
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Here's a question for international readers: Do people in your country dress up as politicians for Halloween, too?

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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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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

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To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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