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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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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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