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A Tough Homecoming for War Veterans

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Every so often, we'll reprint something from our sister publication, The Week. This is one of those times.

© Zhang Jun/Xinhua Press/Corbis

Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are returning home with unprecedented physical and mental wounds. Here, a Q&A guide.

What challenges do new veterans face?

More than 2.3 million soldiers have served in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade, and official fatality and casualty numbers — 6,179 dead, 47,000 wounded — fail to capture the extensive physical and psychological injuries many of them have suffered.

The Veterans Administration has treated more than 210,000 veterans of those wars for post-traumatic stress disorder, but acknowledges a much larger epidemic, since the stigma of mental-health problems prevents many of them from seeking help. Vets are also returning to marriages and families strained or broken by multiple deployments, few employment opportunities, and a country largely oblivious to the wars in which they served, heightening their feelings of loneliness and alienation. "It's harder coming home than leaving — anyone will tell you that," says Col. Michael Gaal, who served in Iraq.

What kinds of wounds have they suffered?

Wounded soldiers are far more likely to come home alive today than in past wars, thanks to advances in combat medicine, faster evacuations, and better body armor. In Vietnam, 2.6 soldiers survived their wounds for every battlefield death; in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ratio is 16 to 1. But that means thousands are returning with catastrophic injuries, such as double and triple amputations and debilitating spinal cord damage, and they need special, long-term care. The use of improvised explosive devices by insurgents has caused a huge increase in traumatic brain injuries, widely considered the "signature injury" of these wars, with at least 218,000 cases diagnosed over the past decade.

What are traumatic brain injuries?

They range from penetrating head wounds to concussions sustained through exposure to massive bomb blasts. Diagnosis can be difficult; blast waves can cause micro-concussions that damage brain cells even of soldiers who are not counted among the wounded. "There are combat wounds you can see, and others that are invisible until symptoms develop," says clinical psychologist Barbara Van Dahlen. Even mild brain injuries can lead to a range of cognitive, behavioral, and emotional problems, including difficulty concentrating, memory loss, and depression. Symptoms often overlap with those of PTSD, making it hard to determine whether soldiers are suffering a psychological problem, a brain injury, or both.

Are these problems widespread?

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America estimates that nearly one in three recent vets — or more than 700,000 of them — suffers from PTSD, depression, or brain injury. Blackouts, flashbacks, night terrors, and sudden rages are common among veterans; suicide, alcoholism, and drug use have surged. PTSD has been cited as a factor in many acts of vets running amok, such as this month's killing of a Mount Rainier National Park ranger by a 24-year-old Iraq returnee. Since PTSD symptoms can emerge long after service ends, fallout from the disorder is likely to increase. "When you look at the epidemic of PTSD, you see the future," says Harvard professor Linda Bilmes.

Are vets getting the help they need?

Many are not. "No one was really prepared for the number of seriously wounded survivors," says Dr. Ronald Glasser, the author of a book on battlefield medicine. Wounded veterans have swamped the VA system, leading to a backlog of almost 900,000 disability claims. Vets complain of a burdensome bureaucracy, lost paperwork, redundant medical exams, and inconsistent diagnoses. "You fight for your country, then come home and have to fight against your own country for the benefits you were promised," said Clay Hunt, a Marine sniper who was shot in the wrist in Iraq, and had to wait 10 months for disability checks. Depressed, divorced, and haunted by the loss of several close friends in battle, Hunt killed himself last March.

What will their long-term care cost?

Hundreds of billions of dollars. Studies show that the cost of health-care and disability payments for veterans of past wars did not peak until decades after the last bullet was fired. The peak year for paying out disability claims to World War I veterans was 1969, and care costs for Vietnam vets have not yet crested. Because of the high survival rates and the many cases of PTSD and brain injuries, it's been estimated that the medical and disability costs for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans over the next 40 years could reach $930 billion.

Are returning vets getting jobs?

Many find that their old jobs have disappeared, or that potential employers are skeptical about the value of their military service. Unemployment among recent vets is 13.1 percent, compared with the national level of 8.5 percent. One in three vets between the ages of 18 and 24 — many of whom had scant education or work experience when they deployed — is now jobless, twice the rate for non-vets of the same age range. "The spike in new veteran unemployment should be a serious wake-up call for the country," says Paul Rieckhoff, the executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "The tide of war might be receding, but the surge home is just really beginning."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.