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The Quick 10: 10 Celebrities Who Served Our Country

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It's Veterans Day in the U.S. (Remembrance Day in Canada), so I thought it was fitting that we look at a few famous folks who left fame at the height of their celebrity (OK, except for maybe Pete Rose) to serve our country. Happy Veterans Day!

1. Pete Rose was in the Ohio Army National Guard. He served at Fort Knox for six months, where he was a platoon guide, and then with a Reserve Unit at Fort Thomas for three years, where he was a company cook.

miller2. Glenn Miller really wanted to serve his country. Because he was too old (38), the Navy turned down his services. He actually had to convince the Army Air Forces to accept him. He said he wanted to lead a "modernized army band", and he did. He and his band had a weekly radio broadcast that was so successful, he was upgraded to a 50-piece band that traveled all over the world playing for troops. In England alone, he and his band gave 800 performances. On December 15, 1944, Major Glenn Miller was on his way to Paris when his plane disappeared over the English Channel. Neither Miller or the plane have ever been found. Is it just me, or is that picture a dead ringer for Ben Affleck?

3. Elvis. OMG, did you guys know Elvis was in the military? I'm kidding, I'm kidding. Elvis was drafted on December 20, 1957, completed basic training on September 17, 1958, and then served in Friedberg, Germany (where he met Colin Powell), from October 1, 1958 through March 2, 1960. He could have joined "Special Services," which basically would have allowed him to receive special treatment because he was Elvis. But he preferred to serve just like everyone else, and the guys who served with him have said that he just wanted to be one of the guys. He was honorably discharged as Sergeant Elvis Presley.

stewart4. Jimmy Stewart was born to a family of military men "“ both of his grandfathers were in the Civil War and his dad served in the Spanish-American War and WWI. He was an accomplished pilot before the war even broke out, so when he enlisted in 1941 (the first major movie star to do so), it was no surprise that he began pilot training immediately. When it seemed like he was going to be taken off of pilot duty to make recruitment films and things like that instead, Jimmy appealed to his superior and said that he really wanted to serve in combat. His wish was granted. We don't know how many missions he flew, because he requested that the total never be released, but we do know that many of his missions were deep into Nazi territory "“ he wasn't just running cargo. Jimmy Stewart's military history could be a whole post by itself, it's so impressive "“ but I'll try to keep it short by just saying that he ended up going from private to colonel in only four years, something only a handful of Americans have ever done. In 1959, he was named Brigadier General. His honors included the Distinguished Service Medal, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, four Air Medals, an Army Commendation Medal, an Armed Forces Reserve Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the French Croix de Guerre with Palm.

5. Clark Gable.

This is my second post in a row that refers to Clark Gable. I'm going to see if I can fit him in all week! Anyway, I think Gable's story is the saddest. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces after his wife, Carole Lombard, died in a plane crash. She had been at a war bond rally in Indiana. She had encouraged him to enlist before her death, but MGM didn't want to lose one of their biggest stars. After she was gone, Gable insisted on enlisting and ended up serving in five high-profile combat missions. Here's an especially creepy fact: Hitler knew Gable was serving in the U.S. forces and offered a reward to any of his men who brought Gable to him, unharmed. Fortunately, that didn't happen and was he was honorably discharged as Captain Clark Gable after D-Day. He was awarded the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

ted6. Ted Williams not only served in WWII, like most of this list "“ he also served in the Korean War. His first stint saw him as a flight instructor at the Naval Air Station Pensacola. Although he was no longer on active duty after WWII, he did stay in the reserves and was called back to duty in 1952 and served in the same unit as John Glenn. And don't think that his celebrity status let him sit back at a cushy desk job "“ nope, Ted flew 38 combat missions and even received an Air Medal for bringing his damaged plane back to base. When he turned 40, General MacArthur sent him an oil painting and personalized it with this:

""To Ted Williams - not only America's greatest baseball player, but a great American who served his country. Your friend, Douglas MacArthur. General U.S. Army."

7. Henry Fonda famously enlisted in the Navy with the quote, "I don't want to be in a fake war in a studio." He served for three years, first as a Quartermaster (navigator) and then as a Lieutenant, Junior Grade. He received a Presidential Citation and the Bronze Star.

autry8. Gene Autry was inducted into the Army Air Forces on July 26, 1942, during a live broadcast of his radio show. He already had a pilot's license and made it his goal to become a Flight Officer, which he earned on June 21, 1944. His chief duty as a pilot was to haul fuel and other necessities, but he also served at war bond rallies, recruiting drives and with the USO. He was honorably discharged in 1946. His awards included the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and the WWII Victory Medal.

9. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., was a reserve officer in the Navy, but he was assigned to Lord Mountbatten's staff in England, which gave him lots of opportunities that most reserve officers didn't have. As a result, he came extremely proficient in military deception skills. So, he used those skills to form the Beach Jumpers. The mission of the Beach Jumpers was to land on beaches and convince the enemy that they were the force to be worried about, when in fact the real attacking unit was landing elsewhere. For his ingenuity, Fairbanks was awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Legion of Merit, the Croix Guerre with Palm, the Legio D'Honneuer, the Italian War Cross for Military and was made an Honorary Knight Commander of the British Empire.

10. Gene Roddenberry was the creator of Star Trek, so it's fitting that he was a combat pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1941. He was part of the 394th Bomb Squadron that referred to themselves as the Bomber Barons. Like Ted Williams, Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart, he also received the Air Medal. And, also like Stewart and Gable, he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross as well.

beelerAnd finally"¦ he's not famous, except in my family, but my grandpa was a career Navy man. It's fitting, because today is also his birthday. He was born on November 11 back when it was called Armistice Day, so his mom gifted him with Armistice as a middle name. His first name is Millard. Yep, say it together "“ Millard Armistice. You can see why he's gone by the nickname "Baldy" since he was about 10 years old!

Happy Birthday, Chief Beeler!! And Happy Veterans Day to our _flossers!

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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