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World War I Centennial: Even Bigger Battleships, Part II

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.

With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 32nd installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

August 22, 1912: Congress Approves USS Pennsylvania

In the early years of the 20th century, the United States, a burgeoning industrial power, looked to protect its booming overseas commerce with a powerful navy. Naval spending jumped from $55 million in 1900 to $139 million by 1910, and by 1912 the U.S. Navy was second only to Britain’s Royal Navy. The successful world tour of the Great White Fleet from 1907-1909 further convinced the American public and lawmakers of the importance of naval power, and the U.S. didn’t hesitate to take up the challenge presented by construction of the Royal Navy’s HMS Dreadnought in 1906, followed by even bigger “super-dreadnoughts” beginning with the Orion class in 1910. Thus as the naval arms race between Britain and Germany heated up in Europe, the U.S. splashed out considerable sums to maintain naval supremacy on its own turf.

On August 22, 1912, Congress authorized construction of the most expensive vessel ever built for the U.S. Navy up to that point – a cutting-edge super-dreadnought designed according to the latest principles in naval engineering. Like other dreadnoughts the $13 million USS Pennsylvania, considered by many observers to be the most powerful ship ever built when it launched in 1915, represented a careful balancing act between armament, armor, speed, and range: bigger guns would pack a more powerful punch, and more armor would make it harder to damage, but they would also add to its weight, slowing the ship down and decreasing its range. In the end the designers opted for a compromise, choosing the middle range of all four attributes for a well-rounded fighting ship.

When complete, the USS Pennsylvania would measure 608 feet long, displace 31,400 tons of water, and carry a crew of at least 915. With room for 5,780 tons of oil, equal to around 42,400 barrels or 1.8 million gallons, she had a maximum speed of 21 knots or 24 miles per hour and a maximum range of 8,000 nautical miles (9,200 ordinary miles) at lower speeds, reflecting the Navy’s preference for greater reach, allowing it to protect U.S. interests throughout the Western Hemisphere. She carried a dozen 14-inch-diameter guns, each of which could lob a 1,400-pound shell just over 13 miles, for a total broadside weight of 7.5 tons.

The Competition

By comparison, the Queen Elizabeth-class battleship design approved by the British Admiralty in June measured about 646 feet long and displaced 27,500 tons. With a minimum crew complement of at least 950 sailors, the Queen Elizabeth had room for 3,500 tons of oil – around 25,650 barrels or 1.1 million gallons – a top speed of 24 knots or 27.6 miles per hour, and an effective range of 5,000 nautical miles (5,750 ordinary miles) at lower speeds, reflecting its core mission area in the seas around Europe and particularly the British Isles. In the crucial area of armament, it carried eight 15-inch-diameter guns, each capable of throwing a 1,920-pound shell to a distance of almost 19 miles, for a total broadside weight of 7.8 tons.

Meanwhile the Bayern-class super-dreadnoughts currently under design in Germany measured 591 feet long, displaced 28,530 tons, and had a minimum crew complement of around 900. Like the Queen Elizabeth they had a range of 5,000 nautical miles, more than adequate for a confrontation with the Royal Navy in the North Sea, but a top speed of just 21 knots, like the Pennsylvania. They carried eight 15-inch-diameter guns which could throw a 1,653-pound shell over 13 miles.

Like these other super-dreadnoughts, the construction of the USS Pennsylvania would itself be an epic undertaking, spread out over several years and involving no small amount of bureaucracy. The contract was put out for bids on December 20, 1912, the contract was awarded to the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company and signed on February 28, 1913, and the keel was laid on October 27, 1913; the ship was finally launched on March 16, 1915. One other ship in the Pennsylvania-class, the USS Arizona, was ordered on March 4, 1913, laid down on March 16, 1914, and completed June 19, 1915.

After long service the Arizona would meet a tragic fate, sunk by the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, with the loss of 1,177 officers and crew. The Pennsylvania survived the bombing and World War II only to be done in by her own side: in 1946, now obsolete, she was subjected to a nuclear blast as part of the Operation Crossroads series of nuclear tests, then scuttled in 1948.

See all previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]