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5 Things You Didn't Know About Winston Churchill

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Winston Churchill had one of the most immediately recognizable faces of the 20th century, and you probably know all about his triumphs as a statesman and orator. Let’s take a look at five things you may not know about him, including how his mom tried to bribe him to give up smoking.

1. He May Have Masterminded a UFO Cover-Up

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During World War II, a squadron of Royal Air Force bombers had what they believed was an encounter with an alien spacecraft during a flight. While flying along the British coast near Cumbria after a bombing raid, a crew claimed that a hovering metal disc had silently shadowed their plane’s movements, and they even snapped pictures of it.
When Churchill heard these reports, he sprang into action and ordered that the story be kept secret for at least 50 years. Churchill was understandably concerned about sparking a mass panic when World War II was already raging, and he further worried that spotting an alien would shake peoples’ religious beliefs at a time when they needed their faith to help deal with the war.

2. He Was an Honest Pedestrian

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Churchill made a classic traveling blunder during a 1931 visit to New York City. In a confused moment, he looked right instead of left before stepping onto Fifth Avenue without realizing that here in the States, our traffic moves on the opposite side of the road. Churchill stepped right in front of unemployed auto mechanic Mario Contasino and took a 30 mph thumping from Contasino’s car, which dragged him and then tossed him into the street.

Although Churchill bruised his chest, sprained a shoulder, and suffered cuts to the face, he quickly told police that it was his own bumbling that led to the accident and that Contasino hadn’t done anything wrong. In fact, he felt so bad about inconveniencing Contasino that he invited the driver to his hospital room for a visit. Churchill also took advantage of his wounds to secure a tipple during prohibition. He got his doctor to write him a note that read, ''This is to certify that the post-accident concussion of Hon. Winston S. Churchill necessitates the use of alcoholic spirits especially at meal times.''

Churchill even decided to have a bit of fun with the accident. He asked his buddy Frederick Lindemann, an Oxford physics professor, to calculate the force with which the car hit him. Lindemann responded that it was roughly equivalent to two point-blank charges of buckshot but joked that the charge was probably mitigated by the “thickness cushion surrounding skeleton and give of frame.”

3. He’s Torn Up the Pop Charts

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Churchill has one odd distinction on his resume: he’s placed two albums on the British pop charts after his death. In 1965, his posthumous release The Voice Of charted shortly after his death, and he scored another triumph last year with the release of Reach for the Skies. The album features some of Churchill’s most rousing speeches from World War II set to the music of the Central Band of the Royal Air Force. The new record debuted at number four on the British album charts.

4. He Won a Nobel Prize

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Maybe this one’s not so surprising, but the subject is. Churchill brought home a Nobel for literature. The Nobel committee considered Churchill off and on for years after World War II thanks to the strength of his historical writing, but they always had trouble pulling the trigger and actually awarding him the prize. (One of the problems was that Churchill’s main output was as a historian, an area that garnered little literary support. Worse still, the Nobel committee had previously deemed Churchill’s lone work of fiction, the 1899 novel Savrola, to be “without literary merit.)

By 1953, though, Churchill had finally built up enough support to nab the award over the likes of E.M. Forster and Hemingway. When Churchill received the prize, the committee praised him particularly for his six-volume history The Second World War and "for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values"

5. His Mom Tried to Nix the Iconic Cigars

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Churchill often appeared in public with a cigar in his mouth, and the stogie habit started at an early age. When Churchill was just 15 his mother implored him to give up the habit, even writing in a letter, “If you knew how foolish & how silly you look doing it you would give it up, at least for a few years.” She didn’t just rely on rhetoric, though; she turned to every parent’s favorite weapon, bribery. If Churchill would give up smoking for six months, she’d get him a gun and a pony. He agreed to this deal.

Eventually, he went back to smoking the large cigars that are now named in his honor. Although many of the cigars Churchill smoked were specially made just for him and weren’t the part of any brand, he did occasionally puff on the commercial stuff. His favorites were Cuban Romeo y Julietas and Camachos. His other well-known vices were Johnny Walker Red scotch and vintage Hine brandy.

If there's someone you'd like to see profiled in a future edition of '5 Things You Didn't Know About...,' leave us a comment. You can read the previous installments here.

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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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