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Put Yourself in July of 1969

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This weekend through Monday, television and the internet will be full of commemorations of the Apollo 11 moon mission, in which Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the moon's surface. If you want to relive the event, you can follow coverage in real time at the interactive site We Choose the Moon. It was 40 years ago today that the mission lifted off from Kennedy Space Center. But those who weren't yet born when Apollo 11 launched don't have the context of that time period, which helps to understand how awed and inspired we were by the accomplishments of the Apollo astronauts and by mankind in general in July of 1969. What follows are some of the events that shaped the mood of the nation at the time.

The Vietnam War

The Unites States was deeply mired in another land war in Asia, and had been for about a decade. As a child, my country had always been at war in Vietnam. The news we watched on TV every night wasn't good, but it wasn't the whole story, either. By 1969, returning veterans were speaking out about how the war was mismanaged and how much worse conditions were than news outlets were telling us. More and more young men refused to serve when drafted, and thousands turned out for protests because although they could be drafted, they were too young to vote.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

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The Civil Rights movement had breakthroughs and setbacks at a pretty steady pace for the 15 years since the Brown vs Board of Education ruling in 1954. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the unelected leader of the movement, due to his oratorical skills and his inexhaustible devotion to the cause. In the late sixties, King had expanded his crusade to include justice for poor people of all races and an end to the Vietnam War. He was not the first Civil Rights leader to be murdered, but he was the most prominent. When King was shot on April 4th, 1968, the event cast a cloud over all the gains the movement had made.

Bobby Kennedy

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Former US attorney general Bobby Kennedy ran for president in 1968, but only got as far as winning the California primary when he, too was assassinated on June 5th. His death was a shock and brought up all the old feelings Americans had when president John F. Kennedy was murdered in 1963.

1968 Presidential Election

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Chaos reigned at the 1968 democratic convention as police fought against hippies, Yippies, anti-war protesters, civil rights activists, and others who had invaded the streets of Chicago. People following the TV and newspaper reports were afraid the protesters would disrupt the presidential nomination process, or worse, poison the city's water supply with drugs! But we also hoped that the protests would somehow shorten the war. Anyhow, with Lyndon Johnson out of the race (due to the war) and Kennedy out of the race (due to his death), the democrats really had no chance in the '68 election against Richard Nixon.

Feminism

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The women's liberation movement was making progress in some areas and suffering backlash in others. Organizations were pressing for abortion rights. The first Women's Studies class for credit was held at Cornell University in 1969. Women went to office jobs wearing pantsuits inside of skirts. Attitudes lagged behind activism, as the movement was condescendingly called "women's lib" and feminist were called "bra burners", even though no bras were ever burned.

The Cold War

The space race was only one side of America's competition with Soviet Russia. The darker side was the nuclear arms race and the threat of global nuclear war. As children, my generation felt it was just a matter of time before the Russians dropped an H-bomb on us. We listened for the Emergency Broadcast System to deliver the bad news of the nuclear attack we came to expect. We learned to Duck and Cover, but we also knew that those defense tactics were useless.

Apollo

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Into this depressing mix of events and conditions, there was a shining beacon of hope. We were going to the moon! The Mercury and Apollo missions fed our pioneering spirit and our thirst for modern technology at the same time. Everyday men became superheroes when they put on a spacesuit and stepped into a tin can to be flung higher above the earth than anyone had flown before. And we got to follow their progress in newspapers and magazine, and best of all, on TV! When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the moon, they took us all with them. If mankind could take this giant step, there could surely be nothing to stop us from taking care of all those other problems.

And that's what it was like in 1969.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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