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11 Things You Might Not Know About the U.S. Navy

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Founded on October 13, 1775, by an order of the Continental Congress, the U.S. Navy is the largest navy in the world, and it is steeped in lore and tradition. Presidents, astronauts, artists, and athletes have worn its uniform, and untold thousands have lived by the words engraved on the Naval Academy chapel door: “Non sibi, sed patriae,” or: ”Not for self, but for country.” Here are eleven things you might not know about the Navy.

1. The Navy’s birthplace is in dispute.

Beverly, Massachusetts, and Marblehead, Massachusetts, have long argued over which was the birthplace of the Navy. Each town claims to be homeport of the schooner Hannah, the first armed sea vessel of the American Revolution, and founding boat of the U.S. Navy. (It was so named for Hannah Glover, wife of General John Glover of the 21st Marblehead Regiment.) Marblehead provided the crew; Beverly outfitted the ship. (The men of Marblehead are notable for another action during the American Revolution—they rowed General George Washington across the Delaware River just before the Battle of Trenton.)

Other cities vying for recognition as the birthplace of the Navy include Philadelphia, PA; Whitehall, NY; and Providence, RI. The Navy takes no position on its place of origin.

2. All submariners are volunteers.

Most attack submarines in the U.S. Navy are 33-feet wide and about the length of a football field. Ballistic missile submarines are the length of the Washington Monument. Submarines stay submerged for months at a time. There are no windows, there is no night and day, you have fifteen square feet of living space and no privacy—and there’s a nuclear reactor right behind you. They don’t just let anyone in a submarine. All submariners are volunteers, and have passed rigorous psychological and physical tests. Claustrophobics need not apply. Those serving on submarines are among the most highly trained personnel in the military.

3. How does the Navy name its ships?

In 1819, the United States Congress placed the Secretary of the Navy in charge of naming ships—a power he or she still enjoys. Generally, names are compiled by the Naval Historical Center based on the suggestions from the public, sailors, and retirees, and from naval history. The Chief of Naval Operations formally signs and recommends the list to the Secretary. Ships named for individuals are christened by “the eldest living female descendent” of that individual. Commissioned ships are prefixed with USS, which stands for United States Ship. Though the convention had been in use since the late eighteenth century, it was not standardized or formalized until 1907, by Teddy Roosevelt.

4. The Navy SEAL Trident is sometimes called the “Budweiser.”

The trident worn on the uniforms of Navy SEALs is officially designated as the “Special Warfare Insignia,” but it is sometimes called the “Budweiser,” named in part for the Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) course, the grueling twenty-five week special warfare school. The trident also has an uncanny resemblance to the Anheuser-Busch logo.

5. Why was TOPGUN founded?

The United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program—previously called the United States Navy Fighter Weapons School, but more popularly, “TOPGUN”—was founded during the Vietnam War. The Navy was concerned by the poor performance of its air-to-air missile attacks against the North Vietnamese and ordered an evaluation of its combat aviation program. Inadequate crew training was decided to be at fault, and TOPGUN was established, where pilots would engage in realistic dogfight training against aircraft comparable to the enemy of the day. By the 1970s, Navy kill-to-loss rates went from 3.7:1 to 13:1—a testament to the profound and radical success of the program. It later became the basis of a Tom Cruise movie and, not to spoil anything, but don’t get too attached to Goose.

6. You’ve heard of a few people who know the words to Anchors Aweigh.

• Neil Armstrong flew armed reconnaissance as a Naval aviator during the Korean War. In 1951, he landed on Korean soil after his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire and he had to eject. Eighteen years later, he landed on a more famous patch of ground.

• There’s a good argument to be made that Robert Heinlein’s literary universe was influenced by his time at the United States Naval Academy, from which he graduated, and his time on the USS Lexington and USS Roper.

• Humphrey Bogart enlisted in the Navy in 1918 and served on the USS Leviathan and USS Santa Olivia.

• Before he was MC Hammer, he was AK3 Stanley Burrell (short for Petty Officer Third Class Aviation Storekeeper).

• Bob Barker’s time as a Navy fighter pilot means he's familiar with more means of transportation than just a new car!

7. NCIS isn’t just a TV show.

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service is a federal law enforcement agency operating from 140 locations in the world. Special agents for the largely civilian organization are charged with criminal investigations (obviously), counterterrorism, and counter-intelligence. It was founded as the Office of Naval Intelligence, and at the time was responsible for gathering information on foreign vessels, passengers, bodies of water, and naval infrastructure. During World War I, its mission expanded to espionage and sabotage. Today, it’s a cash cow for CBS.

8. If not for the Navy, James T. Kirk would have been captain of the USS Yorktown.

In the original pitch for Star Trek, the ship we know as the USS Enterprise was called the USS Yorktown. Gene Roddenberry renamed it in part for the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier whose maiden voyage was in 1962. The seafaring Enterprise was (and remains) the longest vessel in the U.S. Navy. Roddenberry felt that the starship at the heart of his series would have had a similar standing as the aircraft carrier, and a new Enterprise was christened.

9. In the Navy, there are no walls or bathrooms.

The Navy has a rich lexicon established by millennia of naval tradition. Ships don’t have walls, they have bulkheads. The mess deck is where you eat food, the deck is where you walk. The head is where you’ll find a toilet. The rack is where you sleep. Birds take off from the bird farm or, rather, planes take off from an aircraft carrier.

10. SEAL Team Six has an outlaw past.

When Richard Marcinko founded SEAL Team Six (so named because there were only two other SEAL Teams, and he wanted the Soviets to think the number was much larger), he did so quickly and effectively. Because the unit was so cloaked in secrecy, the best decisions weren’t always made about spending and training. Marcinko, a combat hero and visionary, went on to found a unit called Red Cell (designed to test military units, tactics, and security) and would later spend time in federal prison for defrauding the government. The present name (that we know of) for SEAL Team Six is the Naval Special Warfare Development Group.

11. The first admiral in the Navy was David Farragut.

Even if you’ve never heard the name, you know his words, allegedly spoken at the Battle of Mobile Bay: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” (It’s unknown whether he spoke those exact words—different accounts give slight variations.) He was commissioned into the U.S. Navy at age nine. His adoptive father, Captain David Porter, probably had some hand in this. At age twelve, Farragut fought in the War of 1812. Though he was born in Tennessee, he remained steadfastly loyal to the Union during the Civil War, and after he seized the city of New Orleans, was promoted to Rear Admiral—a rank created specially for him by Congress. President Lincoln later promoted him to Vice Admiral (Farragut would later be a pallbearer at Lincoln’s funeral). Following the war, he was made the first Admiral of the Navy.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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