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Hitler's Nephew, Stalin's Daughter and Other Famous Defectors

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Here are four defectors whose stories you won't soon forget.

1. Hitler's Nephew

© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

William Patrick Hitler was born in England to a German father, Alois Hitler, and an Irish mother, Bridget Dowling. When William was still a boy, his father moved back to Germany, but his mother refused to go, raising her son alone in England. Alois kept in touch with the family and so, when his famous Uncle Adolf rose to power, young William moved to Germany in the hopes that he would be given a high-profile job. After hounding him for months, Uncle Adolf agreed to give William a cushy position as long as he renounced his British citizenship and promised never to return home. Sensing something wasn't right, William went back to England and capitalized on his famous family by writing an article for Look Magazine called, “Why I Hate My Uncle."

The popularity of the story gave William and his mother (pictured above) the opportunity to travel to America as part of a lecture tour. While there, World War II broke out, and the two were essentially stranded in the United States.

Hoping to do his part in the war effort, Hitler asked for and received special permission from President Roosevelt to enlist in the U.S. Navy in 1944.

According to a newspaper story printed at the time, when he introduced himself at the draft office, the recruiter thought he was joking and responded with, “Glad to see you, Hitler. My name’s Hess.” a reference to Nazi leader Rudolf Hess.

William Hitler served valiantly in the war and received an honorable discharge in 1947. Then, he simply disappeared.

In 1998, author David Gardner went looking for Hitler’s lost nephew and found that, after the war, William and his mother had become U.S. citizens and changed their name to Stuart-Houston. William started a successful medical laboratory business, got married, moved to Long Island, had four boys, and died in 1987. At one point during the interview, William's wife claimed that her sons made a pact never to have children—so the Hitler bloodline would end with them. The oldest son, Alexander Adolf Stuart-Houston, has denied that such a pact exists, though the men never married or had children.

2. The Littlest Defector

When the Polovchak family moved to Chicago from Soviet-controlled Ukraine in January 1980, they hoped to find the American Dream. However, it wasn't meant to be. After less than six months, the family decided to move back home. Well, most of the family did anyway. Young 17-year old Natalia and her 12-year old brother Walter were determined to stay in America. So just days before they were to board a plane, the siblings, with the help of family living in Chicago, filed for religious asylum, claiming they faced religious persecution in the Soviet Union due to their Baptist upbringing.

Because of Natalia’s age, her parents couldn't legally make her come home. However, because Walter was still a minor, his parents asked for assistance from the Chicago Police Department to have their son returned to their custody. Under advisement from both the U.S. State Department and Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Chicago PD instead placed Walter in the care of the State of Illinois as a minor in need of supervision.

With their hands tied in the U.S., the rest of the Polovchak family went home without him, but they continued to fight for their son’s return through political and legal channels. Before long, everyone from the Soviet Embassy, the FBI, the KGB, and the ACLU were embroiled in the controversial court cases that followed.

Sympathy for Walter caused the U.S. Government to intentionally drag its feet, stretching these court procedures out for six years in order to give Walter enough time to become a legal adult and decide for himself where he would like to stay. He was sworn in as an American citizen just a few days after his 18th birthday and still lives here today.

3. Stalin's Daughter

Svetlana Alliluyeva was born in 1926 to Nadezhda Alliluyeva and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. She was the youngest of Stalin’s three children and his only daughter. Her mother died under suspicious circumstances when Svetlana was only six years old, leaving her in the care of nannies for much of her childhood, and only receiving occasional visits from her busy father.

While the two were never close, Stalin still had a forceful hand in his daughter’s life, especially her love life. Although it wasn’t the official reason, it’s believed that Svetlana’s first love was sent into exile because of their relationship. She later married another man, but even after the couple had a son and named him after Stalin, the Premier refused to meet his son-in-law.

She married again two years later, to Yuri Zhadanov, son of Stalin’s second-in-command, Andrei Zhdanov, but the marriage didn’t last. She met her next love, Brajesh Singh, in 1963, 10 years after her father's death. Although the two were never allowed to marry, they often referred to each other as husband and wife. Singh died three years later due to complications from various ailments, and Alliluyeva was allowed to take Singh’s ashes to his family in New Delhi, India. With her first taste of freedom, Svetlana went to the United States Embassy and asked for political asylum.

After moving to America, she wrote her autobiography, Twenty Letters to a Friend, denouncing her father’s regime and the Communist way of life. While here, she married William Wesley Peters, a top apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright, and the couple had a daughter. After this marriage also ended in divorce, Svetlana and her daughter moved to the UK, then later back to the Soviet Union, where they were both, surprisingly, granted citizenship. However, they left again and bounced between the UK and the US throughout the 1980s and 90s.

She lived in obscurity until 2007, when filmmaker Lana Parshina tracked her down to record a series of interviews, resulting in the 2008 film, Svetlana About Svetlana. As of 2010, Joseph Stalin’s only daughter lives in a retirement home in southern Wisconsin.

4. The Reluctant Communist

In 1965, to avoid deployment to Vietnam, U.S. Army Sergeant Charles Jenkins, stationed in South Korea, surrendered to a bewildered North Korean soldier. Jenkins thought he'd be sent to Russia and then returned to America as a part of a prisoner exchange, but instead, North Korea reported that he had asked for political asylum. In response, the U.S. branded him a traitor and issued a warrant for his arrest. With no way to communicate with the outside world to plead his case, Jenkins had little choice but to stay in North Korea.

Unlike other countries, North Korea did not provide an easy life for defectors. Jenkins was quarantined in a one-room house with other American defectors, where they received political indoctrination under constant threat of violence. In 1972, they were moved to separate homes, but life didn't get much better. Jenkins was assigned professions and given a small ration of food, but otherwise eked out an existence like everyone else. The violence continued as well, most notably when North Korean doctors held Jenkins down and, without anesthetic, removed a U.S. Army tattoo from his arm with a pair of scissors.

Hitomi Soga, a Japanese woman, was 21 years old when she met Jenkins in 1980. Hitomi had been kidnapped by North Korean agents to teach spies Japanese, and was later “given” to Jenkins as a wife to prevent him from “dirtying” the Korean bloodline. While their marriage was arranged - and despite a 20-year age difference – the two actually fell in love and had two daughters. At about the same time, Jenkins and other defectors were ordered to appear in a 20-hour propaganda film, Unsung Heroes, acting as villainous U.S. military leaders. When American intelligence acquired the film, it was the first time they could confirm that Jenkins was still alive.

Figuring they would never be allowed to leave, the Jenkins family made the best of their situation, suffering through the country's most difficult times in the 1980s and 90s. However, in 2002, their luck changed when North Korea admitted that Japanese civilians, like Hitomi, had been abducted. To make amends, abductees and their families were allowed to return to Japan. Jenkins was resistant – he feared North Korea was testing his loyalty, and worried about the American arrest warrant – but he was finally convinced to leave with his family in 2004. Once in Japan, Jenkins offered to have his marriage to Hitomi dissolved, figuring she had only stayed with him before because she had no choice. She refused.

To clear his conscience, on September 11, 2004, Jenkins, at the age of 64, put on his old Army uniform, and reported for duty at Camp Zama, a U.S. Army base near Tokyo. His 40-year absence marked the longest any American deserter had ever gone before turning himself in. Jenkins pleaded guilty to charges of desertion and aiding the enemy, but denied making disloyal statements (those charges were later dropped). Although he could have received life in prison, he was sentenced to 30 days in the brig and a dishonorable discharge, though he was released five days early for good behavior.

In his memoir, The Reluctant Communist, Jenkins regrets that he let his country, his family, and himself down in 1965. Some feel his 40 years of hell in North Korea were punishment enough, while others say he’s still a traitor. Although he has made a happy life with his wife and children, he’ll be the first to say that walking to North Korea was the biggest mistake he ever made.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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