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11 Birthday Facts About the Coast Guard, Which Turns 225 Today

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The U.S. Coast Guard has a unique job in the military, with a role in law enforcement and a role in war. Its 42,000 active duty members, as well as its 7500 reservists and 30,000 members of the auxiliary, are called guardians. Here are a few things you might not have known about them.

1. The Coast Guard has a real problem with Aaron Burr.

Alexander Hamilton is the father of the Coast Guard. In Federalist No. 12, Hamilton posited that a “few armed vessels, judiciously stationed at the entrances of our ports, might at a small expense be made useful sentinels of the laws.” Their purpose would be to enforce maritime laws and to collect tariffs. In 1790, the United States was flat broke, and Hamilton, now Secretary of the Treasury, pushed hard for the creation of his fleet to help get the coffers filled. The result was the Revenue-Marine, later renamed the Revenue Cutter Service, and they eventually merged with the United States Life-Saving Service (which helped shipwrecked sailors) to form the Coast Guard.

2. For a while, the forerunner to the Coast Guard was the only navy of the United States.

In 1790, the Continental Navy was disbanded, and the only navy at the disposal of the United States was Hamilton’s Revenue-Marine. At the time, the Barbary pirates posed a threat to the U.S. at sea, and the job of dealing with them fell to the Revenue-Marine. The first three warships of the U.S. Navy didn’t set sail until 1797.

3. The Coast Guard ran the District of Alaska.

As part of an effort to lay telegraph cable from the United States to Russia, the U.S. Lighthouse Service, working subordinate to the Revenue Cutter Service, made first contact with Russia’s Alaskan coast. Later, the Revenue Cutter Service brought U.S. officials to and from the new Alaskan territory. During the 1870s, the service was charged with enforcing hunting and fishing laws in the territory (seals, especially, were valuable for their pelts and hunted to the point of near-extinction). They were also given responsibility for rescuing ships in the Bering Sea and along the Arctic coast. The upshot is that the massive role of the Coast Guard’s predecessor meant that it was the only game in town—it essentially was the government. It even maintained “court cruises,” whereby judicial officials were sailed in to try criminal cases. It also provided care and comfort in the forms of food, medicine, and supplies to villagers in the arctic.

4. One member of the Coast Guard picked a hell of a week to quit drinking.

Lloyd Bridges, Beau Bridges, and Jeff Bridges (The Dude!) all served in the Coast Guard, as did “The King,” Arnold Palmer. The Joker’s shipmates probably got a few laughs in—Cesar Romero was a guardian. Maybe the most famous member of them all, though: Popeye.

5. The Coast Guard doesn’t belong to the Department of Defense.

The United States Coast Guard is the only branch of military service that doesn’t belong to the Defense Department. Rather, it is an arm of the Department of Homeland Security. Before the establishment of the DHS in 2002, it belonged to the Department of Transportation. Before that, it belonged to the Treasury Department. During a declared war, the Department of Defense can take operational control of the Coast Guard.

6. The exosphere is a kind of coast.

Commander Bruce Melnick, the chief test pilot at the Coast Guard Aircraft Program Office, was the first guardian selected by NASA to serve as an astronaut. He flew on the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1990 and on the maiden voyage of the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1992. He has logged over 300 hours of space flight.

7. No Congressional Nominations Needed.

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Every year, 300 cadets attend the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. Cadets graduate as ensigns and have the option of attending flight school or graduate school. Unlike the other service schools, admission to the Coast Guard Academy does not require Congressional nomination. This is because the school’s first superintendent objected to the lousy quality of political appointments in general. Both Coast Guard astronauts are graduates of its academy.

8. If the DOGs are coming after you, it’s going to be a bad day.

Pirates seize your oil rig? You’re going to want to talk to the DOG. The Coast Guard command that handles counter-terrorism and high-threat situations is called the Deployable Operations Group. They're a quick reaction force whose teams handle maritime interdiction, force protection, nuclear-biological-chemical threats, counter-piracy, counter-terrorism, and anti-terrorism. Because the U.S. Coast Guard does not belong to the Department of Defense, its units do not belong to Special Operations Command. That said, the Navy has opened up its Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL course to guardians, and have graduated Coast Guard SEALs.

9. The Ancient Order of the Pterodactyl. (That pretty much says it all.)

The Coast Guard Aviation Association is a fraternal organization of Coast Guard aviators. Its membership includes guardians and members of other military branches (of the United States and other countries) who have flown Coast Guard aircraft. Until 2007, it was known as the Ancient Order of the Pterodactyl.

10. The longest-serving Coast Guard aviator holds a special honor.

The longest-serving active Coast Guard aviator is designated as the Ancient Albatross. This pilot is bestowed traditional aviation gear of a leather coat, leather helmet, goggles, and white scarf, as well as the Royal Pterodactyl Egg. According to regulation, “Eligibility for the title of Ancient Albatross and entitlement to the award will be determined by ascertaining that aviator or aviation pilot on active duty whose date of designation as such precedes in point of time that of any other Coast Guard aviator or aviation pilot.”

11. The Coast Guard by the numbers:

According to the U.S. Coast Guard Boating Resource Center, on an average day, the Coast Guard conducts 109 searches and rescues, saves ten lives, seizes 169 pounds of marijuana and 306 pounds of cocaine worth $9,589,000.00, and investigates six vessel casualties.

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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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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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