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World War I Centennial: Britain Forms the Royal Flying Corps

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.

With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 11th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

April 13, 1912: Britain Forms the Royal Flying Corps

In the years leading up the First World War, weapons technology advanced with such breathtaking speed that it became impossible to imagine what combat in the next war would actually look like.

The first dreadnought battleship was built by Britain in 1908, with oil-powered dreadnoughts soon to follow; Britain developed the Vickers machine gun in 1912; and artillery achieved unprecedented size with the Big Bertha guns developed by Krupp for the Germans in 1912-1913. But possibly the biggest leap forward resulted from an American invention, the airplane, developed by Orville and Wilbur Wright from 1899-1903.

As with the other leaps in weapons technology, the newness of airplanes made it difficult to predict what early aerial warfare would look like. Although the Italians pioneered aerial bombardment (from airships) in Libya in 1912, most planes were still too small to carry substantial bomb payloads, and targeting was too primitive too allow real coordination with ground forces. But aviation still conferred undeniable advantages, especially by allowing observers to soar above the confusing “fog of war.”

Hot air balloons had been used as observation platforms in various wars of the nineteenth century; in land battles, planes could conduct reconnaissance of enemy lines and serve as artillery spotters, directing the fire of ground batteries on targets miles away; and at sea, airplanes and airships could assist fleets by scouring the sea for enemy naval units – a responsibility previously delegated to swarms of small vessels with less speed and visibility than aircraft.

Reach for the Sky

With all these potential applications, military aviation was clearly too important to be left to amateur enthusiasts like the Royal Aero Club and private industry (although these would still play an important role). To bring some order to its nascent air service, on April 13, 1912, the British government decided to establish a new branch that would be responsible for designing and building planes, training pilots, and planning and carrying out missions. The Royal Flying Corps, brought into existence by a royal warrant signed by George V, absorbed the Royal Navy’s handful of planes and the “Air Battalion” of the Royal Engineers. It initially consisted of a military (over land) division, a naval (over water) division, a flight school, established June 19, 1912, and a dedicated aircraft factory.

To illustrate how small the early air forces really were, when it was created the RFC consisted of 133 pilots manning 12 balloons and 36 airplanes – making it much smaller than the French air force, with 390 planes and 234 officers, and Germany’s, with 100 planes and 90 pilots. France, then the world’s leading aircraft manufacturer, also led the way in building new planes: in 1913, the last year before war broke out, Britain spent around $3 million on its air force, compared to $7.4 million for France, $5 million each for Germany and Russia, and a pathetic $125,000 for the United States.

With war looming, spending increased – triggering inevitable bureaucratic battles for control of the air force. In 1914 the Royal Navy – long the dominant military branch in pre-war Britain – demanded that the RFC’s naval wing be formally separated and established as its own Royal Naval Air Service; the division took place July 1, 1914. When war broke out shortly afterwards, the RNAS still dominated, with 93 planes and 727 personnel, versus 63 planes and 900 personnel for the remaining RFC.

Of course the bureaucratic ballet was far from over. Ironically the RNAS and RFC would be re-merged towards the end of the war, on April 1, 1918, to form the Royal Air Force. By that point their combined aviation assets had grown to a remarkable 22,000 aircraft and 290,000 personnel.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]