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Sergeant Alvin York

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Sergeant York has been called "the greatest soldier in history" for his exploits during World War I. But Alvin York never set out to become a soldier, and he never wanted to fight a war or kill anyone. In fact, what he considered his greatest accomplishments came after all the glory of his war exploits. Others tend to disagree. He was a true hero.

Alvin Cullum York was born in 1887 in Pall Mall, Tennessee, the third child and oldest son of eleven children. He grew up using a rifle to hunt food, and became a sharpshooter who won local marksman competitions. His skills became even more necessary when his father died and York had to help raise his younger siblings. York attended school for only a few months in his life.

York was a hard-drinking hell-raiser until he joined the Church of Christ in Christian Union. His conversion is attributed to the death of his friend Everett Delk in a bar fight, which caused York to reassess his life. The church rejected drinking, gambling, dancing, movies, and violence of all kinds. This pacifist stance caused a moral dilemma for York when he was drafted into the army in 1917. He applied for conscientious objector status, but was turned down at both the local and state level because his church was not recognized as a legitimate Christian sect. He spent two days praying in solitude before reporting for duty. His superiors in the military were baffled by York, who could shoot better than anyone but did not want to go to war. York's company commander and battalion commander held discussions with York and convinced him that in certain circumstances, warfare can serve the greater good. Once York's mind was made up, he became a dedicated soldier. He later wrote that the the application for conscientious objection was not his doing and that he refused to sign the papers.

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The events that led to York being designated the "greatest soldier in history" came on October 8, 1918 during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France. Seventeen men under the command of Sergeant Bernard Early were ordered behind the German lines, including then-Corporal York. Some accounts say that the unit ended up behind the lines because they misread the French map. After a surprise attack, a group of Germans surrendered. German machine gunners then saw how small the American detachment was and opened fire, killing Sergeant Early and half the unit, and wounding three more. This left York in command. Corporal York picked off the German gunners one by one. From York's diary:

I teched off the sixth man first; then the fifth; then the fourth; then the third; and so on. That's the way we shoot wild turkeys at home. You see we don't want the front ones to know that we're getting the back ones, and then they keep on coming until we get them all. Of course, I hadn't time to think of that. I guess I jes naturally did it. I knowed, too, that if the front ones wavered, or if I stopped them the rear ones would drop down and pump a volley into me and get me.

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Between each shot, York yelled for the Germans to surrender if they wanted the shooting to stop. The remaining Germans (who assumed there were many more Americans than there actually were) complied. Newspaper accounts say York "single-handedly" captured the prisoners, but York himself credits his compatriots by saying the unit surrounded the enemy. York shot between 20 and 28 Germans (accounts vary; most say around 25). The remaining 90 or so surrendered. As the Americans made their way back to the Allied lines, they picked up more German prisoners along the way for a total of 132 captured.

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York was promoted to Sergeant and continued to fight in France until the armistice was signed on November 11th. York was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor, a Distinguished Service Cross, the Badge of Nobility, and the French Croix de Guerre, among other awards.

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Back in Tennessee, York married his sweetheart Gracie Williams eight days after his arrival home. They eventually had ten children, three of whom died in infancy.

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In 1922, the Rotary Club of Nashville paid for a home to be built for the family in Fentress County. Image by Flickr user Jake Keup.

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York regretted not having the opportunity to become educated as a child. in 1926, he founded the York Institute, a school in Jamestown, Tennessee. He raised funds to start the school as a private high school and in 1937 persuaded the state to provide public support. He considered the school his greatest achievement.

When I went out into that big outside world I realized how un-educated I was and what a terrible handicap it was. I was called to lead my people toward a sensible modern education. For years I have been planning and fighting to build the school. And it has been a terrible fight. A much more terrible fight than the one that I fought in the war. And so I head into the frontline and fight another fight. And I can't use the old rifle or Colt automatic this time. And it has been a long hard fight.

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The original school building was scheduled to be demolished last year, but is now undergoing restoration as a historical site. York also supported an elementary school which now bears his name. He turned down many moneymaking opportunities because he didn't believe in cashing in on his military service, but he was open to raising funds for schools, churches, and charities. Image by Flickr users Brent and MariLynn.

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In 1941, York consented to the project of turning his diary into a movie on the condition that Gary Cooper portray him. The film Sergeant York was a smash hit and earned an Oscar for Cooper and a nomination for Best Film. The movie is a straightforward account from York's diary, with only one fictional embellishment -York did not convert after he was struck by lightning. He used the proceeds of the film to found the York Bible Institute.

Sergeant York attempted to reenlist during World War II but was denied due to his age. He served his country again anyway, touring the nation to encourage the sale of war bonds. He helped to create the Tennessee State Guard in 1941. York also operated a store and gristmill in his hometown. Alvin C. York died on September 2, 1964 at the Veteran's Hospital in Nashville. He was 76.

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York's home, grave site, and businesses are now part of the Sgt. Alvin C. York State Historic Park where his son Andrew York conducts tours and tells stories of his father. Image by Brian Stansberry.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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