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How One Pilot's Sweet Tooth Helped Defeat Communism

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by Greg Volk

In 1948, the Soviet beast was hungry. Three years into the postwar occupation of Germany, the USSR had tired of sharing Berlin, so it blockaded ground and water access to the two million residents in the American, French, and British zones. The Soviet hope was to starve them into submission. In response, from June 1948 to September 1949, thousands of pilots airlifted 2.3 million tons of food and supplies to the blockaded Berliners. The code name for the American mission: Operation Vittles.

At the airlift’s peak in 1949, planes landed every 90 seconds. Pilots flew three trips a day, taking just seven hours off. Despite the exhausting schedule, one airman was determined to do more. On July 19, 1948, Lt. Gail Halvorsen decided to skip sleep. Instead, he took his hand-cranked 8 mm camera and stowed away on his friend’s plane to Tempelhof Airport.

At the runway’s edge, Halvorsen spotted a few dozen boys and girls. Chatting with them through a barbed wire fence, Halvorsen realized something. He had met children across South America, Africa, and Europe, and all of them harassed him for candy. These kids hadn’t asked for anything.

Halvorsen dug into his pocket and pulled out two sticks of Doublemint that he tore into four pieces and passed through the fence. “Kids who got half a stick looked like they just got a thousand bucks,” Halvorsen later recalled. Another child asked for the wrappers, which the group ripped apart and began to sniff.

Moved by the scene, Halvorsen promised to drop candy to them on a future flight. How would they know which plane was his, the children wanted to know. “I’ll wiggle my wings,” the Utah farm boy replied, calling on a move he’d perfected over fields back home.

Operation "Little Vittles"

Not surprisingly, dropping candy from a military airplane was against regulation, but Halvorsen was resolute. First, he convinced his copilot and their engineer to give him their weekly candy rations. Then he tackled the problematic physics of “candy bombs”: Chocolate dropped from a plane going 110 mph hurtles toward Earth at alarming speeds. Halvorsen’s solution was to craft mini-parachutes from handkerchiefs and attach them to the candy with twine.

Nervous and exhausted, Halvorsen took off with his sugary cargo. He needed precise timing to drop the candy on the children’s side of the fence. Even without candy bombs, landing a C-54 Skymaster at Tempelhof’s narrow approach was no easy task. Just before getting to the runway, Halvorsen wiggled his plane’s wings and signaled his engineer to push the packages out the emergency flare chute. Halvorsen hoped that the children would get the candy—and that he wouldn’t get caught.

News traveled faster than expected. The next day, he was called in front of his commanding officer, who slammed down a newspaper. A candy bar had nearly hit a reporter in the head. But instead of a court martial, Halvorsen received congratulations. The operation’s commander, Gen. William Tunner, realized the psychological value of Halvorsen’s efforts and lent his full support: Operation “Little Vittles” was official!

As Halvorsen and a few dozen other pilots made daily candy drops, letters poured in. Elated children thanked Der Schokoladenflieger (The Chocolate Pilot) and Onkel Wackelflügel (Uncle Wiggly Wings) for the gifts. Nearly overnight, Halvorsen became the face of the Berlin Airlift and a symbol of American goodwill. GOT ANY SPARE HANKIES? THIS ‘LIFT’ PILOT CAN USE THEM, proclaimed the New York Post.

All told, Operation Little Vittles rained down 23 tons of candy from 250,000 parachutes. And though it took nearly a year, the Soviets eventually called off the blockade for one simple reason: It wasn’t working. The airlift was a success, filling Berliners’ stomachs and lifting their spirits, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Uncle Wiggly Wings.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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