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Strange Geographies: Exploring a WWII Shipwreck

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I'd like to think I know a thing or two about the Second World War, but there's only so much you can learn from history books and Ken Burns documentaries. To really delve deep, you have to go back to the battle sites -- unfortunately, the places where many of the European Theater's famous battles were fought are now unrecognizably encrusted with development (or were cities and have long since been rebuilt). The Pacific Theater, however, is a different story: many battles were fought on water, making them more or less immune to development (until they invent floating shopping malls). Much of the wreckage is still there, and is as reasonably intact as anything can be after being shot down, crashing into the ocean and being squatted in by weird sea creatures for 60-odd years.

For the intrepid scuba diver, therefore, many parts of the South Pacific are like a living, underwater history museum. Imagine a major WWII battle in the European Theater after which no one had bothered to come in and pick up all the ruined tanks and jeeps, broken equipment, dropped trash. I was lucky enough to dive a few of these sites in Vanuatu recently (you can read about my land-based Vanuatu adventure here), and though they're not exactly battle sites, they're plenty interesting. During the war, Vanuatu was a major American base of operations, from which the Allies launched naval and air attacks against the Japanese in the nearby Solomon Islands. Vanuatu itself never saw any major wartime combat, but evidence of the war is still everywhere, from the Quonset huts and military-built roads that dot the landscape of Espiritu Santo island to the underwater wreckage sites of the SS Coolidge and Million Dollar Point, both of which I had the opportunity to see up close.

The S.S. President Coolidge

Built in 1931, the Coolidge was a trans-Pacific luxury liner which had the misfortune of being completed right as the Great Depression was setting in. It enjoyed just ten years of ferrying America's few remaining rich people around to vacation destinations in the South Pacific before the Second World War cast its shadow over the country, and the Navy decided that the Coolidge should probably start ferrying soldiers around rather than rich people, so they painted it gray, bolted massive guns onto it and sent it into non-combat action.

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Just one year later, this massive ship would lie at the bottom of the Segond Channel in Vanuatu. There are several ways to enter the Segond Channel, and the Coolidge's captain figured -- unwisely, as it turned out -- that he'd come in the back way, to avoid a squadron of Japanese submarines which turned out not to exist. Instead what happened is the Coolidge hit a cluster of American mines which, laid just days earlier, were meant to keep unwanted Japanese warships away. (Those never showed up either, incidentally.) But the captain hadn't gotten the memo, and the Coolidge hit two newly-laid American mines on its way into the Channel. As the ship began to list to one side and take on water, more than 5,000 troops were forced to abandon it, leaving massive amounts of supplies behind -- guns, helmet, jeeps, tanks, rations, medical supplies -- all of which sank with the ship in 70-to-240 feet of water about 100 yards from shore, all of which is still there today, inside this massive ship which lies gently crumbling on its side.

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Soldiers abandoning the sinking Coolidge

Naturally, the Coolidge is a haven for divers. Not only is it staggeringly large -- nearly 200 meters from bow to stern -- it also has the peculiar distinction of being both a luxury liner, home to two swimming pools, several stately dining rooms and promenades and a soda fountain, but a military ship as well, with huge guns welded to the hull and stacks of shells and equipment everywhere. It is, quite literally, like swimming in a military museum. (Albeit a military museum encrusted with 60 years of coral and fish poo. But still.) I dove the ship four times in two days and still only saw a tiny fraction of it. Here are a few of the things we found:

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Our dive guide wearing a helmet and holding a rifle

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Large shells

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The remains of a jeep in the ship's massive cargo hold

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A heavily-encrusted typewriter. I outlined the keyboard and the carriage return -- can you see it?

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Leaving the cargo hold

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An amazing shot of the Coolidge's stern by Dr. Richard Harris

The Coolidge at Night

Diving the Coolidge at night has to rank as one of the most surreal experiences of my life. Absolutely unphotographably amazing. Briefly: we descend, just my diver friend, the guide and myself, in the dull green afterglow of dusk. By the time we reach the ship itself, the light is gone. We navigate over the side of the ship with flashlights, past schools of sleeping fish to the massive, gaping black hole of a cargo hold, switch off our lights, and drift inside. In the hold, it's anything but dark: thousands upon thousands of blinking, bio-luminescent flashlight fish wink all around us, a surging constellation of flashing green lights. We hang there amidst them, transfixed, for what seems like hours; I lose all track of time and, with these infinite winking points as my only light reference, space.

bowmandsa2.jpgJust as I'm starting to feel like the Star Child at the end of 2001, suspended in this otherworldly Milky Way, and noticing how the bubbles from my exhalations make little bio-luminescent sparks that co-mingle with the fish (or are they stars?), it suddenly occurs to me that this sort of disconnection from reality, experienced at 120 feet below the surface of the ocean, inside a cavernous shipwreck, in darkness so profound I can't even read my air pressure gauge, could in fact be pretty dangerous. Whereupon, as if reading my thoughts, the dive guide switches his light on, the flashlight fish hightail it in one massive hive-mind cloud to a deeper and darker part of the ship, and we three aquanauts begin our slow ascent to the surface -- where we're greeted by the actual Milky Way, which in this part of the Southern hemisphere is a great bold stripe across the middle of the sky, unpolluted by the glow of city lights for a thousand miles.

Beach of Broken Things

No more than a mile from the Coolidge site is one of the world's quirkiest dive sites, and a WWII buff's playground. It's called Million Dollar Point, a great gift to divers everywhere that's the result of an act of supreme bitchiness on the part of the American government. After the war, the US had tons and tons of equipment on Vanuatu that it would've been far too expensive to ship back home, so they decided, as governments sometimes do after such conflicts, to auction it off. The British and the French controlled Vanuatu in a strange governmental arrangement called the Condominium, in which the country had two entirely separate courts, parliaments, even two sets of road rules, in which British citizens drove on the left and French citizens drove on the right. (How everyone in the country wasn't killed in head-on collisions is beyond me.)

In any case, the British and the French were the main bidders in this massive auction of American equipment, but by all accounts the bids they made were pathetically low (though to be fair, both of their homelands had recently been devastated in the war against Germany, and they certainly had other financial priorities). Insulted, the Americans decided that instead of taking one of the low-ball offers that had come their way, they would just dump all the equipment into the sea. Which is exactly what they did -- thousands of tons, and millions of dollars' worth, in 70-120 feet of water just fifty yards from shore. The dive site is now called Million Dollar point (though in today's money it might actually be Billion Dollar Point), and it's an amazing junkyard of military equipment, most of which was in perfect working condition until it was tossed unceremoniously into the ocean. Truck parts and Coke bottles from the 40s are still washing up on the beach to this day.

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Your humble blogger, "driving" a bulldozer that clearly hasn't been functional in some time.

Finally, for you scuba enthusiasts out there, I thought I'd include this little YouTube video I made of all the wreck and reef dives I did in Vanuatu. The Coolidge was just one of 5 wrecks we dove; it just happened to the most historically interesting (and the largest, and best, and ... you run out superlatives pretty quickly when discussing the Coolidge).

You can check out more Strange Geographies columns here.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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