Original image
Getty Images

11 Things You Might Not Know About the Air Force

Original image
Getty Images

1. If you’re a weatherman in the Air Force, you’re probably a battle-hardened commando.

Before the Air Force sends squadrons of $150 million aircraft into areas, it likes to know what kind of environmental conditions are waiting for them. But the kinds of places where it sends such aircraft aren’t exactly friendly or hospitable to U.S. military operations. To gather meteorological and geological intelligence, the Air Force sends in Special Operations Weather Teams—commando forces with special training to read the environment and report back. To join such an elite fighting force, these men endure a punishing training pipeline that tests their mental and physical limits. The airmen who make it through earn the coveted gray beret and crest, and are trained to jump out of airplanes, climb mountains, snake through jungles, blow things up, and use small unit tactics in hostile territory.

2. For a while there, North Dakota could have annihilated all human life.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the vast majority of nuclear weapons in the United States were located in North Dakota. Minot Air Force Base was a major Strategic Air Command facility, hosting intercontinental ballistic missiles, bombers, and refueling planes. (In other words, everything you need to start the apocalypse.) Accordingly, had North Dakota seceded from the United States it would have become the third-largest nuclear power in the world.

3. George Bailey was a one-star general.

When the Army drafted Jimmy Stewart, he failed to meet the height and weight requirements and was turned away. Undaunted, he later tried enlisting in the Army Air Corps, but again missed the weight mark. He had to persuade his recruiter to run more agreeable tests, which he somehow passed. Once in uniform, the Army wanted to use him to make promotional films, but he balked and worked to get an assignment to a combat unit. (Indeed, he spent his entire career shunning publicity, preferring to serve as an Air Force officer and not as a celebrity recruitment tool.) By 1943, he was flying bombing runs over Germany, and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. (The first of two.) By the end of the war, he was a full-bird colonel, and joined the Air Force Reserve, eventually retiring as a Brigadier General.

4. Air Force One isn’t the name of the plane.

Getty Images
When the president isn’t on board one of the planes we think of as Air Force One—yes, there are two of them—the Boeing VC-25s are simply known as 28000 or 29000. “Air Force One” is the air traffic control designation for any plane on which the president is a passenger. (To wit, when President Nixon resigned, his plane took off as Air Force One, and by the time it landed, was called SAM 27000.) Air Force One is considered a “protection level one” asset—the security equivalent of a nuclear weapon—and airmen are permitted to use deadly force on unauthorized personnel. So don’t try to charge it.

5. The Air Force shares a birthday with the CIA.

The National Security Act of 1947 completely reorganized the national security apparatus of the United States. It separated the Army Air Forces from the Army, and made it an equal branch of the military—the U.S. Air Force. The bill also created the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Council, and the Central Intelligence Agency. Notably, Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947 into law on what would become the first plane to be designated as Air Force One.

6. You’ve heard of a few former airmen.

• Super-stud pilot and octogenarian brawler Buzz Aldrin flew 86 combat missions (including the shooting down of two enemy aircraft) while serving in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. He earned a Doctor of Science—considered a “higher doctorate”—in 1963. He was not only the second man on the moon, but the first to perform a sacred rite on a heavenly body—he took communion in the lunar module. • George Carlin was an Air Force radar technician. He was thus possessed of the same training as Morgan Freeman, who actually turned down a drama scholarship from Jackson State University to serve as an Air Force radar tech. • In 1932, Ray Cash and Carrie Cloveree couldn’t think of a name for their son, so they named him “J.R.” When J.R. tried to enlist in the Air Force, the recruiters wouldn’t allow initials to be used as a proper name. J.R. thus adopted a new name—John R. Cash—but would become better known in the music industry as Johnny Cash. • Star Trek is largely informed by Air Force culture. Gene Roddenberry, its creator and the “Great Bird of the Galaxy,” flew combat missions in the Pacific during World War II. By the time he left the Air Force, he’d flown eighty-nine missions and had earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal. He would also have outranked Airman DeForest Kelley, who served in the Air Force before later serving in Starfleet. • Airman First Class Hunter S. Thompson’s superiors recommended him for an early, honorable discharge. “Airman Thompson possesses outstanding talent in writing. He has imagination, good use of English, and can express his thoughts in a manner that makes interesting reading.” That said, “This Airman, although talented, will not be guided by policy or personal advice and guidance. Sometimes his rebel and superior attitude seems to rub off on other airmen staff members. He has little consideration for military bearing or dress and seems to dislike the service and want out as soon as possible... Consequently, it is requested that Airman Thompson be assigned to other duties immediately, and it is recommended that he be earnestly considered under the early release program.”

7. The Air Force will buy cyber weapons from you.

The present mission of the U.S. Air Force is to “fly, fight, and win” in “air, space, and cyberspace.” It has plenty of planes and plenty of rockets and missiles; what it needs are a few good cyber weapons. In 2012, the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center put out a request for “Cyberspace Warfare Operations” technology designed for the “employment of cyberspace capabilities to destroy, deny, degrade, disrupt, deceive, corrupt, or usurp the adversaries ability to use the cyberspace domain for his advantage.” The likely model for such weapons is Operation OLYMPIC GAMES, the joint U.S.-Israel cyber attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

8. The top fighter jet ace in the U.S. Air Force is Joseph C. McConnell.

An “ace” is a pilot who has shot down five or more enemy aircraft. The top jet ace in U.S. Air Force history is Joseph C. McConnell, a “triple ace” who shot down sixteen MiG fighters during the Korean War. He did this over a four-month period in 1953—including downing three MiGs on his last mission before returning to the United States. For his actions in combat, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star. In 1954, he was killed while test piloting an F-86H fighter-bomber. His record as top jet ace still stands.

9. Chuck Norris didn’t join the Air Force. The Air Force joined Chuck Norris.

Carlos Ray Norris enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1958 and served in South Korea as an Air Policeman. There, he developed an interest in martial arts, and earned the nickname Chuck. Today, the Air Police career field of which he was a part is known as Security Forces, and qualified airmen are trained in both military policing and airbase ground defense. Their pipeline is held at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and the U.S. Army’s Camp Bullis in Bexar County, Texas. 22% of Air Force casualties in Iraq were Security Forces airmen.

10. The U.S. Air Force has two presidents to its credit.

In 1937, Ronald Reagan enlisted as a reservist in the Army, and soon earned a commission as a second lieutenant. In 1942, he transferred to the 18th Army Air Force Base Unit of the Army Air Forces. (This unit is better known as the First Motion Picture Unit.) He left active duty at the rank of captain on December 9, 1945. In 1968, George W. Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard of the U.S. Air Force and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He trained as a fighter pilot, and flew Convair F-102 Delta Daggers with the 147th Reconnaissance Wing. In 1973 he transferred to the Air Force Reserve, and was honorably discharged at the rank of first lieutenant the following year.

11. The future of the Air Force will involve “counterspace operations,” which is just what it sounds like: X-Wing fighters and Death Stars.

According to Air Force Doctrine Document 3-14.1, we must “be prepared to deprive an adversary of the benefits of space capabilities when American interests and lives are at stake. Space superiority ensures the freedom to operate in the space medium while denying the same to an adversary and, like air superiority, cannot be taken for granted... Counterspace operations have defensive and offensive elements, both of which depend on robust space situation awareness.” Phrases like “space control” and “space force projection” sound a lot like something Wedge Antilles would be familiar with. Here’s hoping.
Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
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!

Original image
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
Original image

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]