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How Military Operations Get Their Code Names

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© Hannibal Hanschke/dpa/Corbis

Last month the world watched rebel forces pour into Tripoli under the banner of Operation Mermaid Dawn. While watching the news, I was struck by a curiosity many of you might have shared: just where exactly do these names come from?

It’s a relatively new practice, actually—less than a hundred years old. The Germans pioneered it during World War I, and the idea took hold in the interwar period, especially as radio became a predominant means of communication.

Before the U.S. even entered the war, Operation Indigo saw U.S. Marines land on Iceland to secure it against possible Axis invasion. Nazi Germany was simultaneously planning its invasion of Soviet Russia, which to this day is the largest military operation in history. It was originally named Operation Fritz, after the son of one of the planners. Hitler must have sensed the inadequacy of the name and upped the ante with a more regal moniker: Operation Barbarossa. The title came from Frederick I Barbarossa, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, who “extended German authority over the Slavs in the east and who, legend said, would rise again to establish a new German Empire.”

Churchill's Rules

Winston Churchill, who personally named the Normandy invasion, warned against the dangers of revelatory code names. At one point in the war, he insisted on personally approving every operation name before it was carried out. He quickly realized the impossibility of such a large task and settled for listing some guidelines in a 1943 memo:

1. Operations in which large numbers of men may lose their lives ought not to be described by code words which imply a boastful or overconfident sentiment. . . . They ought not to be names of a frivolous character. . . Names of living people--Ministers and Commanders--should be avoided. . . .

2. ...the world is wide, and intelligent thought will readily supply an unlimited number of well-sounding names which do not suggest the character of the operation or disparage it in any way and do not enable some widow or mother to say that her son was killed in an operation called "Bunnyhug" or "Ballyhoo."

3. Proper names are good in this field. The heroes of antiquity, figures from Greek and Roman mythology, the constellations and stars, famous racehorses, names of British and American war heroes, could be used, provided they fall within the rules above.

The names were kept in strict confidence—even the smallest compromises were call for alarm. In the months before the D-Day landings, the crossword puzzle of The Daily Telegraph displayed the code names for each of the landing beaches: Juno, Gold, Sword, Utah, Omaha. After that came the code name for the entire mission: Overlord.

British intelligence officers raced to Surrey and interrogated the crossword creator (a schoolmaster), only to find out he knew nothing. For decades it was thought to be a bizarre coincidence. But in 1984 Ronald French, who had been a schoolboy of 14 in 1944 (and one of the crossword creator’s pupils), claimed he inserted the words into the puzzle after hearing American soldiers talk about the invasion.

A Name for Everything

By the end of the war, the practice was well-established on all sides, with code names given for everything from post-war Nazi insurgencies (Operation Werwolf) to psychological mail campaigns (Operation Cornflakes) to fake missions altogether (Operation Mincemeat). In most cases, names were chosen by mid-level officers in charge of planning, but frequent interventions took place when tagging significant campaigns.

After World War II, the use of code names spread to the CIA (Operations Ajax and Zapata). The practice bloomed further during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, although the results were sometimes less artful than Churchill would have liked. Several missions that drew attention for the wrong reasons included Operations Killer, Ripper, Masher, and Moolah. On the Korean peninsula, Operation Paul Bunyan put a decisive end to the most contentious tree dispute between two neighbors in history.

By the end of Vietnam, Department of Defense officials recognized the need for further instruction to prevent negative responses to inopportune names, which were now being released to the public immediately after the missions began. In their 1972 guidelines, the DoD cautioned officers against names that: "express a degree of bellicosity inconsistent with traditional American ideals or current foreign policy," "convey connotations offensive to good taste or derogatory to a particular group, sect, or creed," "convey connotations offensive to allies or other Free World nations," or employ "exotic words, trite expressions, or well-known commercial trademarks." The Pentagon also required that all names feature two words.

Computers were added to the mix in 1975. NICKA, as the system is known, validates and stores all operational names. Each command of the U.S. military is given a series of two-letter prefixes. The first word of every operational name must start with one of those prefixes. For example, the U.S. Africa Command (based, of course, in Stuttgart) was allowed to choose between three groups of letters when naming the Libyan air campaign: JS-JZ, NS-NZ, and OA-OF. By choosing OD from the third list, they arrived at the word “Odyssey.” The second word may be chosen at random.

For the next several years, military operations assumed random names (Operation Golden Pheasant, anyone?) as a consequence. It wasn’t until 1989 and the invasion of Panama that a new trend was born. With the rise of cable and the 24-hour news cycle, the military saw operational names as an outlet for public relations work.

After complete success in having the press adopt “Just Cause” as the sobriquet for removing Noriega, a decade of well-intentioned but slightly overwrought moralisms were forced on the public: Operations Restore Hope, Uphold Democracy, Shining Hope, and six different missions that were supposed to “Provide” something: Comfort, Relief, Promise, Hope, Refuge, and Transition. Despite these overreaches, the result is probably preferable to the fallout from a dud like Operation Killer.

© Sgt. Jose D. Trejo/CORBIS

In the past, operation names covered single actions within a larger framework of conflict. Now the practice has grown to encompass entire wars. Nowhere is this more evident than the Gulf War, which is synonymous with Desert Storm. Had General Norman Schwarzkopf gotten his preferred choice of names for the lead-up to war, we would have never gotten a name like Desert Storm. It was only after the Joint Chiefs nixed Peninsula Shield, then Crescent Shield, that Operation Desert Shield (and then Desert Storm) became a reality.

Despite all of these evolutions, it seems impossible to completely escape controversy in naming operations that are, at their core, violent and often messy. In 2001, when President Bush launched the War on Terror, the invasion of Afghanistan was initially called Operation Infinite Justice (a name Churchill might have taken issue with). Critics cried out that its divine connotation might offend many Muslims whose support America wanted. The name was quickly changed to Operation Enduring Freedom. Then in 2003, the president’s press secretary referred to the Iraq war as Operation Iraqi Liberation, providing fodder for conspiracy theorists everywhere with the acronym O.I.L.

So ... Mermaid Dawn?

As it turns out, "mermaid" has long been a nickname for Tripoli, which helps explain Operation Mermaid Dawn. Although the rebels might have not given us the best name to bandy around in the press, it certainly fared better than Operation Ripper (Part II: The Final Rip) would have. That would have sent the wrong message to almost anyone—except maybe Qaddafi himself.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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