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Neil Armstrong's Giant Leap

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Neil Armstrong -- astronaut, engineer, professor, Navy pilot, and first man on the moon -- has died at the age of 82. He is best known for the words he spoke just after he set foot on the moon. Contrary to popular belief, Armstrong said (emphasis added): "That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." That word "a" was garbled in the satellite feed heard by the world. Regardless of our ability to hear him, Armstrong was a man of powerful words. Here are a few more to remember him by.

The Moon Plaque

Apollo 11 plaque

Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin left a plaque on the ladder of their moon lander, Eagle. The plaque read: "Here men from the planet Earth / First set foot upon the Moon / July 1969 A.D. / We came in peace for all mankind." It bore the signatures of the Apollo 11 crew members and President Nixon. He also left a small silicon disc bearing tiny messages of goodwill from various world leaders, as well as the names of various American dignitaries. You may enjoy this video of Armstrong placing the plaque and then reading its text to the world (his reading starts around 1:30):

In addition to that plaque, the messages of goodwill on the disc were mixed. Most were fairly bland messages of congratulations. But the message from Poland made it clear that the Cold War was in full swing:

"Although we are not suggesting any message from the Polish Head of State, please be assured that the achievements of the U.S. astronauts are followed by us with great interest, appreciation and best wishes for the success in their endeavor."

Jorzy Michalowski
Ambassador, Poland

And in this short clip at the Apollo 11 40th anniversary celebration in 2009, Armstrong discusses how the space race functioned politically. "I'll not assert that it was a diversion which prevented a war, but nevertheless, it was a diversion."

The Congressional Gold Medal

Armstrong was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal on July 21, 2009. In this video, he shares some memories of the journey. He starts the speech: "Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I am in the position of a pilot without his checklist, so I'll have to wing it. ... [Prior to the Apollo missions,] no one knew what kind of person could be persuaded to take the trip. Prisoners were suggested. Soldiers could be ordered. Photographers could take pictures -- and they're expendable. Doctors understood the limits of human physiology. Finally, both sides picked pilots." Watch the rest for an explanation of how the Apollo missions worked.

Tranquility Base & "About to Turn Blue"

Armstrong suits up for the Apollo 11 launch on July 16, 1969Eagle's touchdown was tricky. The autopilot was sending the lander into a crater that Armstrong didn't like the looks of, so he took manual control and steered the vehicle to a new location, which he dubbed Tranquility Base -- apparently the first time Mission Control had heard the name. With seconds of fuel remaining (and people around the world holding their breath), Armstrong landed and announced the name of the first place where humans set foot on the Moon. Capcom Charlie Duke was audibly relieved, and just a bit flustered. The exchange:

Armstrong: "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

Duke: (Momentarily tongue-tied) "Roger, Twan...(correcting himself) Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot."

You can read the full lunar landing transcript from NASA, including several audio clips in MP3 format.

The BBC Interview

In 1970, Armstrong was interviewed by the BBC about what it was like to be on the Moon. "I'm quite certain that we'll have such [lunar] bases in our lifetime, somewhat like the Antarctic stations and similar scientific outposts, continually manned."

The 60 Minutes Interview

Armstrong was a very private man. Here's a rare profile at age 75 on 60 Minutes. Highlights: he got his pilot's license at 15 -- before his driver's license; video showing his last-minute ejection from a near-fatal test flight (after which he walked back to his office and finished some paperwork); the dicey last-second landing of Eagle (and laughing with Walter Cronkite remembering that landing).

The biography mentioned in the video above is First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong.

NASA's Remembrance

NASA has posted an obituary, including this quote from Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins (the man who did not get to walk on the Moon during that mission):

"He was the best, and I will miss him terribly." -- Michael Collins, Apollo 11 command module pilot.

NASA also posted this image showing Armstrong on the Moon. Most of the iconic astronaut-on-the-Moon photos are actually of Buzz Aldrin, taken by Armstrong. But this is the man himself:

Neil Armstrong on the Moon

A Glamour Shot

Here's Neil Armstrong in a Gemini G-2C training suit. Photo courtesy of NASA, via Wikipedia.

Neil Armstrong in a Gemini G-2C training suit

New York Times Archival Coverage

The New York Times has posted archival images and text from their coverage of the first moonwalk, with its famous, gigantic "MEN WALK ON MOON" headline. You may recall The Onion's profane-but-true spoof (warning: curse words, lots of 'em!) of that page. Here's a nice bit from the real NYT coverage:

Tentative Steps Test Soil

Mr. Armstrong's initial steps were tentative tests of the lunar soil's firmness and of his ability to move about easily in his bulky white spacesuit and backpacks and under the influence of lunar gravity, which is one-sixth that of the earth.

"The surface is fine and powdery," the astronaut reported. "I can pick it up loosely with my toe. It does adhere in fine layers like powdered charcoal to the sole and sides of my boots. I only go in a small fraction of an inch, maybe an eighth of an inch. But I can see the footprints of my boots in the treads in the fine sandy particles.

After 19 minutes of Mr. Armstrong's testing, Colonel Aldrin joined him outside the craft.

The two men got busy setting up another television camera out from the lunar module, planting an American flag into the ground, scooping up soil and rock samples, deploying scientific experiments and hopping and loping about in a demonstration of their lunar agility.

They found walking and working on the moon less taxing than had been forecast. Mr. Armstrong once reported he was "very comfortable."

And people back on earth found the black-and-white television pictures of the bug-shaped lunar module and the men tramping about it so sharp and clear as to seem unreal, more like a toy and toy-like figures than human beings on the most daring and far-reaching expedition thus far undertaken.

Armstrong Smiles After a Walk on the Moon

Finally, here's a photograph taken by Aldrin of Armstrong, after they returned from their walk on the Moon. That grin is infectious -- you can see the exuberant sense that "we did it" is on his face, along with the weariness of how hard it was. But we went to the Moon not because it was easy, but because it was hard. Rest in tranquility, Neil Armstrong.

Armstrong after Lunar EVA

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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