Original image

Not-So-Famous Firsts: Arlington National Cemetery

Original image

In honor of Veterans Day, here are some Not-So-Famous Firsts about Arlington National Cemetery. We salute all of you who answered when their country called, and encourage our civilian readers to take a moment to say “thanks” to the veterans they know.

First Soldier Buried in Arlington

William Henry Christman of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, enlisted in the U.S. Army on March 25, 1864, and received $60 cash in cash along with a $300 promissory note from the government.

Christman, 21 years old and unmarried, was assigned to the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment. A letter to his parents dated April 3, 1864, assured them that he was doing well and had more than enough to eat and drink. Three weeks later he contracted the measles and his conditioned worsened until he had to be admitted to Lincoln General Hospital on May 1. He died of peritonitis on May 11. Christman’s final resting place was originally the Lee Rose Garden, a parcel of land that was part of the 624 acres officially established as Arlington National Cemetery one month later on June 15, 1864.

First Arlington Lady

One day in 1948, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg and his wife, Gladys, saw an airman being buried at Arlington with no one present save for the chaplain and honor guard. Mrs. Vandenberg was so saddened by the thought of a military veteran being buried alone, with no family members present, that she organized a group of Air Force officers’ wives called the Arlington Ladies to attend all Air Force funerals. Eventually the Navy, Army and Coast Guard followed suit. (The Marines send a representative of the Commandant instead.) Today there is an Arlington Lady (or Gentleman) present at each service held for active-duty, retired or veteran service members buried at Arlington. If family members are unable to travel to attend the burial, the Arlington representative sends them a letter describing the service along with a personal condolence note.

First Honor Guard Badge Recipient

The Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Identification Badge was created in 1958 and is the second-least awarded badge in the U.S. Army (the Astronaut Badge is first). The Honor Guard badge is awarded only to those soldiers who are able to pass the very rigorous tests and screening necessary to serve as a member of the Honor Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Master Sgt. William Daniel was the first recipient of the Badge and “walked the mat” until June 1960. Only 577 other soldiers have been awarded the sterling silver inverted wreath since Sgt. Daniel’s was issued in 1958. Soldiers do not wear any rank insignia while on sentinel duty so that they do not outrank the Unknowns.

First First Lady Buried in Arlington

Helen “Nellie” Taft was the first First Lady of the United States to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. She was laid to rest in 1943 beside her husband, William Howard Taft, who was the first president to be buried there. Nellie had several other “firsts” to her credit as well; when her husband was appointed Governor-General of the Philippines, she broke with military tradition by inviting native people to social events. She was the first presidential wife to hire African-American men to work as ushers at the White House, and she was also the first spouse to ride with her husband in the Inaugural Parade after the swearing-in ceremony.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
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!

Original image
Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
Original image

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]