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A Red Phone FAQ

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What was the Red Phone?

The Red Phone, also known as the Red Telephone, the Moscow-Washington hotline and the Hot Line, is a "confidence building measure" and communications system designed to decrease tensions and prevent accidental nuclear war by providing direct contact between the leaders of the United States and Russia. It links the White House (via the National Military Command Center) with the Kremlin.

When and why was it established?

The leaders of the Soviet Union first proposed a safeguard to prevent accidental war in 1954. In 1958, they accepted an invitation from the US to take part in a Conference of Experts on Surprise Attack in Geneva, Switzerland; no firm plans were made, but research began on both ends on the technical aspects of a safeguard system. In 1961, President Kennedy addressed the U.N. General Assembly and proposed a "Program for General and Complete Disarmament in a Peaceful World." The program included measures to prevent miscommunication between the US and USSR, including "advanced notification of military movements and maneuvers" and the creation of "an international commission to study "˜failure of communication.'"

A year later, the Cuban Missile Crisis, a confrontation over the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. While that's scary in and of itself, the way the two nuclear superpowers communicated with each other during the crisis is downright terrifying. It took the US almost 12 hours to receive and decode a 3,000 word telegram from the Soviets, and by the time the Americans drafted a response, the Soviets had already sent another message. Meanwhile, the Soviet ambassador to Washington had have a bicycle courier pick up his messages take them to a Western Union office in order to communicate with Moscow. Hindsight being 20-20, after the crisis was resolved, both the US and USSR realized the situation could have been resolved faster with a modern, efficient communication system. On June 20, 1963, spokesmen from both countries signed the "Memorandum of Understanding Regarding the Establishment of a Direct Communications Line" in Geneva.

So how does it work?

Contrary to its portrayal in pop culture, the system is more than a pair of red telephones. In fact, the system didn't involve an actual telephone until the 1970s. The memorandum that established the system stipulated "one full-time duplex wire telegraph circuit," since it was thought that that text would reduce the chance of poor translation, give each side time to consider the other's message before replying and prevent a person's tone of voice from being misinterpreted. The telegraph circuit was routed Washington-London-Copenhagen-Stockholm-Helsinki-Moscow, and a second link, routed Washington-Tangier-Moscow, was used a back up.

Identical teletype terminals were set up in Washington and Moscow, staffed by teams of communications experts and interpreters. The Moscow terminal, dubbed the Red Phone by the Soviets, was placed in a cell under the Kremlin, and the Washington terminal was placed in the Pentagon at the National Military Command Center. The memorandum also stipulated that each country provide the other with the necessary equipment for the terminals free of charge.

In 1971, the system was upgraded. A phone line was installed and the secondary telegraph line was eliminated. The main telegraph line was then complemented by two satellite communication lines, formed by two US Intelsat satellites and two Soviet Molniya II satellites.

The system was upgraded again in 1986. The Soviets replaced their satellites with modern stationary Gorizont-class satellites, and high-speed facsimile transmission capacity was added. This allowed the quick exchange of large amounts of information, including images and documents, along with voice and teletype messages.

When the hot line is used on the American end, a message from the president is sent from the White House to the command center via coded phone, electronic transmission or messenger. The officer in charge of the center contacts the White House to verify the message. Once the message is verified, it is encoded and sent to Moscow (in the early years, the teleprinters were only able to send material at the staggering rate of 66 words per minute). Messages from Washington are transmitted in English and messages from Moscow transmitted in Russian, using Cyrillic characters, with translation being handled on the receiving end.

Has it ever been used?

There have been several instances where the hotline has been used that the public is aware of, and probably many more that we don't know about yet. Moscow used the system for the very first time on June 5, 1967, during the Six Day War. President Lyndon Johnson said in his memoirs that he remembered answering the phone in his bedroom and hearing defense secretary Robert McNamara say, "Mr. President, the hot line is up." Just a few hours earlier, war had broken out between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and the Soviets wanted to know if the United States had taken part in Israel's surprise attack on Egypt. Over the next several days, the two sides used the hot line to send as many as 20 messages, mostly to inform each other of the intentions and maneuvers of their navy fleets, which were in close proximity in the Mediterranean.

Richard Nixon also used the hot line when tensions were sparked between India and Pakistan in 1971, and again two years later during another Middle East conflict. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan both used the hot line to flex their muscles; Carter contacted Moscow to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and Reagan is said to have threatened the Soviets over their arrest of a US journalist on espionage charges.

Most recently, the system has been used during the post-war occupation of Iraq to allow for discussion of peace-keeping and rebuilding efforts.

While its official uses might be few and far in-between, the hot line functions 24/7 and is tested hourly, with the Pentagon sending a message every even hour, and Moscow sending a response every odd hour. Since something must be said in the messages, operators on both sides have made a game of testing each other's translation skills. The U.S. operators are fond of sending recipes for chili and magazine articles, while the Russians respond with excerpts from Dostoyevsky novels.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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