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6 Ways to Compare the Candidates (Besides Electoral Votes)

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When electoral maps overwhelm and statistical margins of error confound, pollsters and political commentators struggle to measure the outcome of the presidential race. Here are a few alternatives for predicting the election.

1. Check the CafePress Meter

CafePress, the maker of customized t-shirts and other swag, has been tracking the sales of candidate paraphernalia since January. The candidates have inspired the public to design nearly 5.8 million custom items for sale on the site. Obama's sales peaked in June, accounting for 77 percent of all sales through the website, and currently out-sell McCain. However, in mid-September, McCain merchandise outpaced Obama items. Throughout the campaign, Sarah Palin merchandise has almost always beaten Joe Biden's sales numbers.

2. Gauge Their Soda Pop-ularity

jones-soda-prez.jpgCampaign supporters vote by the bottle at Jones Cola. The company is tracking the candidates' soda pop-ularity at Campaign Cola 2008. Joe six-packs everywhere can choose between Yes We Can Cola and Pure McCain Cola, or even Ron Paul Revolution Cola and Capitol Hillary Cola if they're nostalgic for the primaries. (As of Tuesday afternoon, Obama was ahead of McCain, 15,216 bottles to 3,726. Ron Paul's soda-loving followers have put him in second place, with 6,606 bottles sold.)

3. Look to the Stars (We Don't Mean Matt Damon or Jon Voight)

At least one astrologer predicts that Leo Obama will win over Virgo McCain. Another astrologer predicts an Obama win with a margin of at least 10 percent. Astrologer Raj Kumar Sharma noted that America is entering the age of Aquarius. Also, by the Chinese calendar, 2008 is the year of the Rat, the same as McCain's birth year. Obama was born in the year of the Ox, and 2009 is also the year of the Ox.

4. Have a Facebook-Friend-Off

Facebook may not yet rule the world, but if it did, Obama would out-friend McCain more than 4 to 1. Of course, Facebook's younger crowd might skew the results, but according to professor Christine Williams, the social networking edge can translate into a real-world boost of 3 percent.

5. Poll the Trick-or-Treaters

Voting with Halloween costumes instead of ballots, Obama would be ahead 55% to 45%. The costume website also breaks down the presidential mask popularity by state, in case you want to compare it to the electoral college. Mask predictions held true according to statistics back to 1980. They might be more accurate than current election polls as well.

6. Let the Redskins Decide

Legend has it that the football forecasts the winning party of the presidential election. Since 1936, every time the Washington Redskins win their final homegame before the presidential election, the incumbent party wins. This did not hold true in 2004 when the Redskins lost but incumbent Republican Bush won. Good news for Democrats—last night, the Pittsburgh Steelers marched into Washington and defeated the Skins 23-6.

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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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]