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Better Late Than Never: 6 Delayed Tales

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Is it ever really too late to complete unfinished business? Last week, a 78-year-old woman in Lynwood, Washington was arrested for beating her 84-year-old husband over an affair he had (or at least that she suspected) 35 years ago. Was she angry all this time, or did she find out about it in their old age? The story reminded me of several other instances of unfinished business that took years to resolve.

The Race

Shizo Kanakuri ran the marathon at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. Or, he started the marathon. Before finishing the race, the heat got to him and he stopped. He was so embarrassed at not finishing that he booked early passage back to his home in Japan without telling the Olympic officials. Swedish authorities listed him as missing for years. Kanakuri competed in the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, but the missing persons bureau in Sweden missed that. In 1962 a journalist caught up with him in Japan and found he was unaware of the trouble he had caused. In 1966, Kanakuri returned to Sweden and finally completed the unfinished marathon at age 75. His time from start to finish in that marathon was 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 8 hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds.

Graduation Day

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In the racially-charged atmosphere of Virginia in the 1950s, three high schools shut down at the beginning of the 1958-59 school year rather than allow black students to integrate their classes. The students were left to handle their education as best they could. Some moved to other districts. Some dropped out, and still others managed to get into college early. The seniors at Maury, Granby, and Norview were known as the "Lost Class of '59." The schools reopened in February, but most of the senior class had scattered. Last week, after a 50 year delay, 100 of those students received honorary diplomas from their old schools.

The Jailbreak

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Richard Paul Boucher broke out of a Chesapeake, Virginia prison where he was serving time for robbery in 1982. With the help of his wife, he made his way to Georgia, where the two changed their names and raised a daughter who never knew of her father's past. Now 56 years old, Boucher was arrested last week by police in Murray County, Georgia. He had been free for 27 years.

Reluctant Surrender

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In 1945, getting the word out to all Japanese soldiers stationed in remote areas that the war was over was not so easy. The soldiers were on guard for treachery and propaganda, and they weren't inclined to believe the news. Cases of Japanese holdouts trickled in through the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Three soldiers finally finished their war in the 1970s! Hiroo Onoda was sent to the island of Lubang in the Philippines and told by his superiors to never surrender and to never take his own life. Onoda faithfully carried out his orders over decades. He led several other soldiers who eventually all left or died. Onada was befriended by a Japanese college student in 1974, in whom he confided that he would not surrender unless ordered to by his commanding officer. The student contacted the now-retired officer, who flew to Lubang to personally order Onada to go home. A few months later, the very last Japanese soldier, Terruo Nakamura surrendered in Indonesia. Shoichi Yokoi had held out on his own in Guam until 1972.

Late Mail

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Walter Butler sent a postcard to his girlfriend while he was in action in World War I. She didn't get it, but the two later married, had children, and lived to a ripe old age. 90 years later, in 2007, the postcard was finally delivered to Butler's 86-year-old daughter. Where it spent those 90 years is still a mystery.

Second Chance Romance

240polk.pngIt's not uncommon that sweethearts will reunite and marry many years after they parted in high school. I myself married a high school boyfriend twenty years after we broke up. I found such stories that took place 30 or 40 years later. And a couple even longer.
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Don Polk of Greeneville, Missouri broke up with his high school girlfriend Wanda when he graduated, and left to fight in the Korean War. That was in 1952. They both married other people and only saw each other briefly at high school reunions. After more than 50 years, they reconnected after their spouses died. Don began writing and calling Wanda, and she kept their letters in the little box Don gave her for just that purpose back in high school. The Polks were married last year.

238frankmaimie.jpgMaimie Meakin and Frank Walker were sweethearts in England during World War II. Her parents discouraged the romance because they didn't expect Frank to survive as a RAF tail gunner. They separated, but never forgot each other. 60 years later, both found themselves single after their longtime spouses died. Maimie, now 86 placed an ad looking for Frank, who is now 88. Friends who saw the ad put them in contact, and they are now inseparable. They are considering marriage.
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Maybe it's never too late to finish something you started a long time ago.

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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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