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Red Adair, Global Firefighter

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Red Adair put out fires for a living. Oh, not just any fires, but burning oil and gas wells, fires that could have been fueled for decades and were expected to take years to extinguish with the best methods available. He was called out to fires all over the world, including war zones, because of his company's experience and expertise.

Adair's company put out thousands of fires, but a few were particularly memorable. In late 1961, his crew was called to Algeria where a natural gas fire burned so hotly that the desert sand melted into glass. The fire had burned for six months before Adair arrived, and was nicknamed the Devil's Cigarette Lighter.

Red never met a fire he couldn't lick. He bombed many of them into submission with high explosives. It seems wildly counterintuitive, using dynamite to subdue an inferno, but the physics are quite simple: a properly shaped and sized explosion will momentarily suck all the oxygen from a given area, thus starving the flames long enough to get a cap on the well. (Of course, done wrong, it's also extremely dangerous.) Red didn't invent the idea -- it had been used since before he started wrestling wells -- but he perfected it, made it an intuitive art.


The company had to dig their own wells for water in the Sahara, and construct reservoirs. Adair spent months preparing for the final explosion that extinguished the flames in May of 1962. Putting out the Devil's Cigarette Lighter brought Adair worldwide fame, but he was just getting started. Watch a video report of the Sahara fire.


Paul Neal Adair was born in 1915 in Houston, Texas, one of eight children. He dropped out of high school to help support the family. Adair held various jobs including seven years of work in the oil fields before he went into the army, where he served with the 139th Bomb Disposal Squadron during World War II. The nickname "Red" was a natural because of his red hair, and later he took to wearing red clothing, driving a red car, and using the color for his business equipment and literature.


After the war, Adair went to work for the MM Kinley Company. Founder Myron Kinley pioneered the technique of fighting oil well fires with dynamite, which deprived the fire of oxygen. In 1959, Adair founded his own company, Red Adair Company, Inc.


Adair's life read like an adventure movie script. After the Devil's Cigarette Lighter fire brought him worldwide fame, Hollywood noticed and based a feature film on Adair's life. The 1968 film Hellfighters starred John Wayne as a globetrotting firefighter loosely based on Adair, who served as a consultant to the film along with his company colleagues. The movie received lousy reviews, but Adair and Wayne became lifelong friends.


In 1972, Adair founded the Red Adair Service and Marine Company to develop and market new firefighting equipment to be used on well and other massive fires. He rigged bulldozers with heat-resistant shields and developed a semi-submersible vehicle for fighting offshore fires. By then the company had accomplished some milestones, such as being the first to ever cap an American well while it was still on fire and putting out underwater well fires. Pictured is the IXTOC I blowout, an underwater fire in the Gulf of Mexico the Red Adair Company extinguished in 1980.


On July 6, 1988, the Piper Alpha Rig Disaster killed 167 men in the North Sea. It was the deadliest oil rig disaster ever. Adair's company was the first to board the burning platform. They extinguished the last of the flames three weeks after the blowout, while dealing with 70-foot waves and 80 mph winds.


At the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the retreating Iraqi forces set fire to the oil wells of Kuwait, around 700 fires total. Twenty-seven teams from sixteen countries fought the oil fires in Kuwait. The job of extinguishing those fires was estimated to take 3-5 years, but Adair, in his seventies at the time, put out the last of his company's 117 fires in November of 1991, just a few months after the operations began.


Adair was 79 years old when he finally retired from firefighting in 1994 and sold Red Adair Company, but he still worked as a consultant with a new company named Adair Enterprises, Inc. He headed that company until his death at age 89 in 2004.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]