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

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If trends hold steady, 79,000 people will walk into recruiting stations around the country this year and join the U.S. Army. They will take jobs ranging from infantry to accounting, and fight battles everywhere from Afghanistan to cyberspace. Here are 11 things you might not know about the Army.

1. A majority of presidents wore the uniform.

Twenty-four presidents served in the Army, to include the various state militias, which supported the Army during the American Revolution and the Civil War. (Excluding the militias, you lose Captain Abraham Lincoln and Brigadier General Chester A. Arthur, among others, on your Fantasy Army team). Of them, 23 were officers, with Private James Buchanan earning distinction as the only enlisted man to ever be elected president. Teddy Roosevelt is the only president to have been awarded the Medal of Honor, albeit posthumously. (Notably, Roosevelt even volunteered for service in World War I—ten years after having served as president.) There’s even some overlap in service: That guy holding the flag in that painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware? James Monroe. William McKinley’s commander in the 23rd Ohio Infantry? Rutherford B. Hayes.

If all of the presidents came back as zombies and put on a uniform, George Washington would be the highest-ranking member of the armed forces, having been posthumously promoted to General of the Armies of the United States in 1976. His second-in-command would be General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower. (Trivia: Ike was born David Dwight Eisenhower.)

2. Why are they called Rangers?

Rangers are the Army’s elite light infantry soldiers. In the 18th century, they were formed to wage frontier warfare. They were “grim-faced men” who “went forth to search out the Indian enemy.” They engaged in reconnaissance, acted as scouts, and “ranged” between fixed fortifications. During the American Revolution, Ranger Francis Marion (“the Swamp Fox”) pioneered modern guerrilla warfare.

The Ranger motto is “Rangers lead the way!” This came from an exchange between General Norman Cota and Major Max Schneider on Omaha Beach during the Normandy Invasion.

“What outfit is this?” asked Cota.
“5th Rangers, sir,” said Schneider.
“Well, goddammit,” said Cota, “If you're Rangers, lead the way!”

3. George Washington chose the colors of the present Army dress uniform.

In 1778, the Continental Congress charged General Washington with deciding on a service uniform for the Continental Army. In October 1779, he directed soldiers to wear “blue coats with differing facings for the various state troops, artillery, artillery artificers and light dragoons.” Over then next two hundred years, the Army tried various colors—whites, tans, and greens—but in 2010, again began issuing uniforms according to Washington’s color design.

4. Cavalry charges in the 21st century?

In October 2001, ODA 595 of 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) linked up with CIA operatives and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. The best way to move across the brutal terrain, they discovered, was on horseback. As one Special Forces operator wrote to higher headquarters, “I am advising a man on how best to employ light infantry and horse cavalry in the attack against the (Russian manufactured) Taliban T-55 Tanks, armored personnel carriers, BTR’s, mortars, (D-30) artillery, ZSU (23-2) anti-aircraft guns and machine guns (Dshk and PKM). A tactic which I think became outdated with the invention of the machine gun. I can’t recall the US fighting like this since the Gatling gun destroyed Pancho Villa’s charges in the Mexican Civil War in the early 1900‘s... We have done this every day since we hit the ground.”

By the time the city of Mazar-e Sharif fell, the A-Team’s horses were deafened from gunfire and explosions, and had no issues with operators firing assault rifles from their backs.

5. The Army is older than the United States.

The Battles of Lexington and Concord were fought by militias. (The men were famously called to arms by Paul Revere, who did not shout “The British are coming!” because most residents of Massachusetts considered themselves British.) Once it became clear that a serious war was at hand, the Second Continental Congress authorized a Continental Army with a unified command structure, to be led by Major General George Washington. The measure passed on June 14, 1775, and is still celebrated as the Army’s birthday.

Colonists did not like the idea of a standing army. Consequently, the Continental Army remained relatively small early on, with short enlistments so as to prevent “tyranny.” This led to an experience problem—by the time soldiers really got the hang of fighting a war, their contract was up. Likewise, the Army depended heavily on state militias, which were rife with discipline problems. With the ratification of the Declaration of Independence, it became clear, as John Adams wrote, that the United States needed “a regular Army, and the most masterly Discipline, because I know, that without these We cannot reasonably hope to be a powerful, a prosperous, or a free People.” Soon thereafter, enlistments were extended to three years and the Continental Army underwent a series of expansions and radical reforms.

6. Washington never asked to command the Continental Army, but...

There is no evidence of George Washington ever lobbying to be commander of the Continental Army. Just the opposite—every account of Washington suggests a reluctance to take the job, and general feelings of inadequacy to the task. That said: Washington showed up to the Second Continental Congress conspicuously wearing his military uniform. When it came time to select a commander-in-chief for the new Continental Army, he was decided to be the best man for the job.

There are good reasons for this. Politically, Washington brought Virginia into the mix. Militarily, he was the most experienced native-born officer on the continent. He’d previously fought in the French and Indian War. He later served as commander-in-chief of the Virginia Regiment—the first active duty military regiment in the colonies. (Here he saw up close the tactics of the British army, would come in handy later.)

7. Army astronauts are a thing.

Soldiers who jump from airplanes wear Airborne wings. Those who rappel from helicopters wear Air Assault wings. Those who fly into space wear Astronaut wings. Colonel Douglas Wheelock wears all three. He logged 178 days in space after serving as the first active duty soldier to command the International Space Station. (In 2011, he deployed to Afghanistan, and has flown thirty-eight aerial combat missions.)

There are a series of badges and decorations for those soldiers who explore the final frontier. These include the Master Army Astronaut Badge, the Master Space Operations Badge, the NASA Space Flight Medal, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, and the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.

8. Special Forces are everywhere doing everything.

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According to the Special Forces Command Public Affairs Office, in the last decade U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers have deployed to 135 of the 195 recognized countries in the world. Their nine principal tasks are unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, direct action, counter-insurgency, special reconnaissance, counter terrorism, information operations, counter proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and security force assistance.

9. Rhode Island > Army > Montana

As of 2014, there were approximately 490,000 active duty soldiers, 205,000 reserve soldiers, and 354,200 soldiers in the National Guard for a total of 1,049,200 members of the U.S. Army. For comparison, that’s about the size of the total population of Swaziland (give or take 50,000 people), so they should think twice before annoying the United States.

10. Their equipment can be measured in Autobots.

The biggest helicopter in present use by the U.S. Army is the Boeing CH-47 Chinook, which has space enough for 33 combat-equipped soldiers or up to 50 troops. The dual-bladed rotary wing aircraft can slingload 26,000 lbs. from its main hook; its two smaller hooks can carry around 17,000 lbs. each.

The biggest (well, pretty much only) tank used by the Army is the M1 Abrams tank. If you wanted to buy one, you’d need somewhere around $9 million and would have to make the check out to General Dynamics. You could even use jet fuel to keep it rolling.

The biggest truck in the Army is the Heavy Equipment Transporter, or HET. Its tractor is 30 feet long; its trailer is up to 48 ft. long. If someone climbed in your HET cab and said, “Step on it!” you could probably get it up to around 40 miles per hour. The vehicle weighs 90,000 pounds, which is just about the combined weight of the Earth equivalents of all five Dinobots.

11. It was the last service to adopt an official song.

It took 181 years for the Army to settle on a song. In the 1940s, it even held a contest in hopes of finding the right music. “The Army’s Always There” by musician Sam H. Stept came close—it was even played at Ike’s inauguration—but in the end some feared that it sounded too much like a popular song called “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts.” In the end, an old artillery tune called the “Caisson Song” was matched with new lyrics, and the result was “The Army Goes Rolling Along.” On Veterans Day in 1956, the Army at last made official the words and music that every soldier sings today.

Updated for 2015.

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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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