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Where Did the Peace Symbol Come From?

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There are lots of symbols for peace: the dove, the olive branch, the v-shaped hand gesture. Unlike those first two, however, the peace symbol -- the wearing of which these days seems more a fashion statement than a political one -- is of much more recent vintage. Here's how it came about.

It was 1958. Worldwide concern over nuclear stockpiling and total annihilation was growing, and the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (one of many such groups, albeit the only one headed by a prominent philosopher, namely Bertrand Russell) was getting ready for a big protest at Canterbury Cathedral. They wanted a symbol of their own they could wear as a badge, and hired a British graphic artist named Gerald Holtom to create one. After experimenting with designs involving a Christian cross inside a circle, he created the now-famous "crow's foot" design.

semaphores.jpgThe crow's foot has been a symbol for death and despair since ancient times, which seemed a not-unfitting reminder of the disarmament movement goal -- stop governments from nuking us into death and/or the stone age. But Holtom's peace symbol also had a more literal meaning hidden within: it contained the semaphoric shapes for the letters "N" and "D" ("nuclear disarmament" -- seen at left). Semaphores are a means of visual communication at a distance using the arms or a pair of flags.

Holtom later elaborated on his creative process in an interview: "I was in despair. Deep despair. I drew myself: the representative of an individual in despair, with hands palm outstretched outwards and downwards in the manner of Goya's peasant before the firing squad. I formalised the drawing into a line and put a circle round it." Here's that painting:
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The circle, of course, has lots of meanings, among them eternity and the unborn child. Once Holtom's symbol had been adopted not only by the group he designed it for, but the anti-war movement as a whole a few years later, the right wing got ahold of it and created their own set of interpretations. The John Birch Society, for instance, claimed that it was the Antichrist's "broken cross," purportedly devised by Nero as a nasty way to execute Saint Peter. Others claimed it was a medieval symbol for the devil, and that it bore a striking resemblance to a Nazi badge used during WWII.

Thanks to Cecil Adams for his fine research, who also pointed out that the Birch Society has tried to "re-brand" the peace symbol thusly:
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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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May 23, 2017
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