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Documentaries I Like: The Fog of War (featuring Robert McNamara)

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Robert McNamara died today, at the age of 93. McNamara was US Secretary of Defense through most of the 1960's, overseeing the start of the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, among other major Cold War crises. Back in 2003, documentarian Errol Morris made a film called The Fog of War featuring McNamara, and pretty much only McNamara -- literally sitting in a chair, reviewing the history of various wars, combined with archival video and audio.

The Fog of War - documentary posterThe Fog of War is truly fascinating. I don't use that word lightly (not here, at least). It's the kind of film you stare at, and just wonder: "Why didn't I know about this before?" How is it possible that I went through a modern college education and basically knew nothing about McNamara, very little about the Cuban Missile Crisis, only a smattering about Vietnam, and so on? I think the documentary itself addresses this question -- McNamara himself says we should look back. That's why he agreed to do the film, and why he wrote his 1995 memoir (which is apparently fairly similar to the film). McNamara says we should examine our history and try to draw lessons from it. It's not often that we, as busy human beings, sit back and make a concerted effort to make sense of what we've done. McNamara and Morris do just that in The Fog of War, and the lessons McNamara comes up with are pretty good. Here they are:

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

1. Empathize with your enemy

2. Rationality will not save us

3. There's something beyond one's self

4. Maximize efficiency

5. Proportionality should be a guideline in war

6. Get the data

7. Belief and seeing are often both wrong

8. Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning

9. In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil

10. Never say never

11. You can't change human nature

But are these lessons for war, or lessons for business?

Well, McNamara had experience with both; in addition to his US government jobs, he was the first non-Ford-family president of Ford Motor Company. McNamara was a key face of the military-industrial complex in the twentieth century, and his reliance on data, efficiency, and command structures has clear roots in both the military and the manufacturing business. Now, whether this is good or bad I can't say for sure -- but it's definitely interesting, and it's deeply interesting to hear what McNamara himself has to say about it. In The Fog of War, we see McNamara as a bit of a geek, someone who cares about knowledge (at least in retrospect), who has a very thorough understanding of what he did and why. He might have been wrong (and he admits as much), and he certainly made mistakes, but boy, he has sure thought about what he did. That's why you should watch this film -- to see a smart guy, whose decisions had a huge effect on human lives, looking back on those decisions and trying to learn from them.

Representative quote: "Any military commander who is honest with himself, or with those he's speaking to, will admit that he has made mistakes in the application of military power. He's killed people unnecessarily — his own troops or other troops — through mistakes, through errors of judgment. A hundred, or thousands, or tens of thousands, maybe even a hundred thousand. But, he hasn't destroyed nations. And the conventional wisdom is, 'Don't make the same mistake twice,' learn from your mistakes. And we all do. Maybe we make the same mistake three times, but hopefully not four or five. There'll be no learning period with nuclear weapons. You make one mistake and you're going to destroy nations."

The entire movie is actually available on Google Video for free, in super-crappy quality. Here it is (though, fair warning, this will probably be removed by Sony Pictures shortly):

You can also rent it from Netflix, buy it from Amazon (only ten bucks!), listening to a Morris/McNamara lecture, learn more about Morris's Interrotron, or watch the trailer.

Final fun fact: McNamara's middle initial S stands for "Strange." Really.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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