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Whatever Happened to U-2 Spy Gary Powers?

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If you weren't alive when Francis Gary Powers got shot down over the Soviet Union, you probably heard about it in high school history. But just in case you slept through that class, here's a quick recap: Capt. Powers had been working for the CIA, carrying out aerial espionage missions from the cockpit of the U-2 spy plane. The Lockheed U-2, which could fly to 70,000 feet (out of the range of most Soviet weaponry), was equipped to fly over military targets and take hi-res photos for U.S. intelligence.

The public knew nothing of these spy missions until the Powers incident, but the Russians had known for years when they finally were able to take down the "Dragon Lady" on May 1, 1960. On August 17, Powers was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 10 years of jail & hard labor. After 21 months in prison, however, he and another American were traded for KGB Colonel Vilyam Fisher, a.k.a. Rudolf Abel, captured in New York in 1957.

That's as far as the story typically goes "“ Powers' role in the escalating Cold War effectively ended there. So whatever happened to him?

Plenty of Critics Were Waiting Back Home

powers suitBetween Powers' capture and sentencing, the contents of his plane were salvaged from the crash site. To wit, they included a pack of Kent cigarettes, a .22 caliber pistol, money, and a poison suicide pill to be taken in case of disaster. Many at the time said Powers should have destroyed the plane's camera and then taken the pill before the Soviets could get to him.


It should be noted that the pilot tried and failed to activate the U-2's self-destruct mechanism before he parachuted out of the crashing plane. Following an investigation into the incident, the Senate Armed Services Committee vindicated Powers' actions, concluding that he had neither betrayed his country nor acted unprofessionally in the course of his capture.


(It's also widely believed that Powers had a Swiss Army Knife in his gear, which the Russians confiscated and put on public display as "CIA spy gear." However, I can't find any reputable sources to back up that claim, so take that story with a grain of salt).

Spy Exchange

The spy exchange that ultimately brought the pilot home happened just like something out of the movies. As Powers walked across a guarded bridge connecting East & West Berlin, Abel passed by, heading the opposite direction. Unlike most movie spies, though, the captain didn't emerge from the incident with oodles of hot Russian babes in tow. Nevertheless, Powers did soon find love, American-style, in that most romantic of places "“ back at the CIA.

An Office Romance & Life After the CIA

sue and garyClaudia "Sue" Edwards was administering tests for the CIA to Americans returning from overseas, "to make sure the agents hadn't been turned," according to Gary Powers, Jr. After Sue administered Gary's test, a hallway collision led to spilled coffee, which led to more coffee, which led to lunch, which led to dinner, which led to marriage in November 1962, nine months after Powers' return.


From 1963 on, he test-piloted planes for Lockheed, wrote a memoir of the incident, and became a traffic-copter pilot for a Los Angeles radio station. Powers died in 1977 when his helicopter crashed while on a routine trip. His son was 12 at the time. Gary Jr. would go on to found the Cold War Museum. Sue Powers died in 2004 at the age of 68.


It wasn't until 23 years after his death that Powers was awarded any military honors. On May 1, 2000, the 40th anniversary of the U-2 crash, his family was presented with a Department of Defense Prisoner-of-War Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the National Defense Service Medal.

And in case you're curious, we haven't found any hard evidence that U2 was named after the Lockheed plane, despite omnipresent rumors alleging as much. The rumors persist in part because Bono was born just a few days after Powers' capture. As best as I can tell, the Air Force also claims no responsibility for the lead singer's aviator goggles.

(Middle photo: Powers' flight suit, on display at the Atomic Test Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada, taken by Craig Moran; bottom photo courtesy Gary Powers, Jr., and the Cold War Museum).

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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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