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Why Nukes Are Still Just As Scary As They Were in the 60s

I think people today, especially younger people, don’t think of nuclear weapons as a real threat the way that people who lived through, say, the Cuban Missile crisis did. Remember the days when campuses would erupt in “no nukes” protests? When activists would lie across train tracks to stop trains from delivering bombs to missile sites? The crises are hidden now. The protests small, when there are any. The Cold War has ended, the assumption goes, and with the Berlin Wall fell the threat of World War Three. I had been operating under this tacit assumption for some time: that a Dr. Strangelove-style disaster was, if not impossible, then nearly so. But as I recently heard someone point out, if the probability of something is not zero, it will eventually happen. So it’s not an antiquated concern; the nuclear threat is as present as it was when Kennedy said this to the UN, if not moreso:

As the documentary film Countdown to Zero eloquently and frighteningly lays out, that “Sword of Damocles” still hangs above our collective heads, despite significant reductions in the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the U.S., and the decision of countries like South Africa to get rid of their arsenals altogether. Kennedy cites “miscalculation, mistake, or madness” as reasons the next bomb could go off, and the film discusses each in turn. Mistake and miscalculation are why we’ve had a number of quiet but very serious close calls in the two decades since the Cold War supposedly ended — the U.S. and Russia still have thousands of nuclear warheads on hair trigger, such that if just enough mistakes or miscalculations were made in the right order, hundreds of millions in both countries could be dead within thirty minutes. It almost happened in 1995, in what’s known as the Norwegian Rocket Incident:

From PBS.org:

It was one of the most frightening moments since the Cuban missile crisis. In the early morning hours of January 25, 1995 a Russian radar crew spotted a fast-moving object above the Barents Sea at Russia’s northern border. A missile they couldn’t identify. The Russians have always viewed U.S. nuclear submarines as the greatest threat; a Trident missile launched from that area could reach Russia’s mainland in 10 minutes. At the Russian radar station, the crew saw the missile suddenly separate into several sections just as the warheads of a Trident missile would. Their trajectory seemed to be carrying them towards Moscow. In Moscow, a signal went out to the nuclear briefcases which always accompany President Boris Yeltsin and top defense officials. Russia had established a deadline: they’re supposed to detect an attack, assess it and reach a decision on retaliation within 10 minutes.

There were only 5 minutes left. Urgent radio contact was made with Russian submarine commanders. Orders were given to go into a state of combat readiness and the military issued orders to the Strategic Forces to prepare to possibly receive the next command, which would have been the launch order. For 4 minutes, the Russian commanders waited for the order to launch. The Russian strategic plans permit launching Russian missiles before enemy missiles hit Russian territory. Eight minutes after the alarm was first sounded, the mysterious objects fell into the seas. The decision to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike was averted; the Russian forces stood down.

Hours later, the Russians learned that the unidentified object had been a scientific rocket launched from Norway to study the Northern lights. The Russian government had been notified weeks earlier the launch was coming, but no one told the radar crew.

In other words, one day in 1995, Russian president Boris Yeltsin, who was by all accounts frequently drunk, and was characterized by one diplomat as a “robot on drugs,” had the proverbial red button placed before him. If he’d been in a less rational state of mind, or if he’s listened to the advice of his military commanders, there would have been a nuclear holocaust.

Other nuclear alerts have been triggered by flocks of migrating geese, meteor showers (in 1960), and a malfunctioning computer chip costing 46 cents (1980). Pentagon officials admit that even today, equipment failures cause two or three false alarms every year.

As for madness, let’s look at Pakistan. It is a nuclear power with some seventy bombs in its arsenal. Its government is highly unstable. It’s a hotbed for religious radicalism. Osama Bin Laden lives there. Bin Laden has stated that his ultimate goal is to kill somewhere in the neighborhood of four million American citizens, which according to his calculations, would just about even out the body count in his holy war. It’s pretty clear that terrorist organizations are not going to be able to kill that many people with airplanes or conventional weapons. They will need a nuclear bomb.

There’s lots of talk about terrorists smuggling a “dirty bomb” into the states. The government has spent billions of dollars installing radiation detectors at American ports, which scan the great numbers of shipping containers that come into the country every day. They are very good at detecting elements like Cesium, which you’d use to make a dirty bomb. Various reports have argued that while such bombs would cause plenty of panic and certainly some deaths, they would be nowhere near as destructive as an actual nuke. You can make perhaps a few thousand people very, very sick with a dirty bomb. You cannot level a city.

Highly enriched uranium, however — which you need to make a “real” bomb — is much easier to sneak past those sensors. When encased in lead, its radiation signal is quite weak. Porcelain, china, even kitty litter give similar signals. (Every day there are thousands of false alarms at ports involving household products like those.) The whole thing, even sealed in lead, would be about the size of a football. If it was hidden in a shipment of kitty litter, they’d never find it. (According to this article, we’re working on better detectors.) Once you had the material inside the country — say, in the heart of the target city — making the device that sets it off is not an insurmountable challenge. You need about a million dollars worth of equipment and the help of a few dozen people trained in various aspects of weapons technology. This sort of tech might’ve been a big secret in the 1950s — it’s not anymore.

So what can the world do to prevent a nuclear holocaust, accidental or intentional? The Global Zero foundation has a step-by-step plan (and a nice little petition you can sign if you feel so inclined) which involves a combination of further nuclear reductions (the ultimate goal being zero) and much better and more secure policing of the world’s existing stockpile of highly-enriched uranium, the key to bomb-making.

To close, here’s a nice little featurette on Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the bomb,” and the incredible regret he came to feel in the decades following the Manhattan Project.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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