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Operation Eagle Claw: The Disastrous Rescue Attempt During the Iranian Hostage Crisis

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© Mahmoudreza Kalari/Sygma/Corbis

The Iranian Hostage Crisis, in which Iranian student revolutionaries held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days, was an unprecedented act of state-sanctioned terrorism and a profound humiliation for the United States. In many ways “Operation Eagle Claw,” the ludicrously ambitious plan to rescue the hostages, was the nadir of the whole affair. Intended to demonstrate U.S. strength and determination to Iran and the world, Eagle Claw — which occurred on this date in 1980 — was instead a spectacular failure.


The hostage crisis, lasting from November 4, 1979 to January 20, 1981, was part of the broader upheaval of the Islamic Revolution, in which millions of Iranians took to the streets to topple the U.S.-backed Shah Reza Pahlavi beginning in January 1978.

Facing massive protests and growing violence, the Shah fled the country on January 16, 1979; two weeks later Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the charismatic Shi’ite cleric and spiritual leader of the revolution, returned from exile in Paris to take over leadership of the revolution – and eventually the country.

Although Khomeini was widely revered as the main voice of dissent against the Shah, his followers were just one of many revolutionary factions united against the old regime, including many secular and moderate Islamist groups. Over the next two years, Khomeini’s radical Islamist followers – including a good number of Iranian college students – would help the ayatollah sideline the moderates and implement his vision of velayat-e faqih, the “guardianship of the Islamic clerics,” a doctrine essentially calling for a religious dictatorship.

There was a long history of U.S. intervention in Iran, often through covert means, and the CIA had acquired an almost mythical reputation there following its role in the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran’s last democratically-elected ruler, in 1953. In 1979 the Iranian revolutionaries assumed (probably correctly) that the U.S. wasn’t simply going to stand by while a key oil supplier and ally fell under the sway of a group of ruthless medieval theocrats. When the U.S. admitted the deposed Shah for cancer treatment, it confirmed their suspicions that the Americans must be plotting a counter-revolution.

Storming the Embassy

It was in this context that around 500 Iranian college students descended on the U.S. embassy on November 4, 1979, to seize dozens of American embassy workers in blatant violation of international agreements guaranteeing diplomatic immunity.

The college students vowed to hold the hostages until America handed over the Shah for trial (and almost certainly execution), freed up frozen Iranian assets, and generally stopped interfering in Iranian affairs. Crucially, Khomeini gave his blessing to the embassy takeover and refused to send in police to restore order, in part because it would help radicalize the revolutionary movement. Iran was now a rogue state.

Images of the blindfolded American embassy staff spurred outrage and calls for decisive action in the U.S. Four days after the hostage crisis began, Ted Koppel’s Nightline debuted on ABC to provide in-depth coverage of the events, and Walter Cronkite began ending every CBS News broadcast by announcing the number of days the embassy workers had been held hostage. Under enormous political pressure, on November 12, President Jimmy Carter ordered the Pentagon to begin drawing up plans for a daring – read: foolhardy – rescue mission codenamed “Operation Eagle Claw.”

The Plan

No one can fault the operation for not being complex enough. Under the cover of darkness, eight navy helicopters were to fly from the U.S.S. Nimitz, based in the Arabian Sea, to “Desert One,” a secret staging area in central Iran picked by the CIA, where they were to meet up with U.S. Delta Forces aboard three C-130 transport planes flying in from Oman. Another three C-130 transport planes carrying 18,000 gallons of fuel for the helicopters were also supposed to land at Desert One. The eight Navy helicopters would then refuel and fly the Delta Forces to “Desert Two,” another spot about 50 miles south of Teheran, where they would conceal the helicopters and hide out during the day.

On the second night, the Delta Forces would board six trucks driven by Iranian CIA operatives, drive into downtown Teheran, storm the U.S. embassy, free the hostages, and transport everyone to a nearby soccer field, where they would be picked up by the Navy helicopters flying in from Desert Two. The Navy helicopters would then fly the freed hostages and Delta Forces to Manzariyeh airfield, about 60 miles southwest of Teheran, which was supposed to be secured in the interim by U.S. Army Rangers arriving aboard C-141s. Everyone would then board the C-141s for final extraction to Egypt (the helicopters would be abandoned and destroyed). Easy!


Well, not really: Eagle Claw only got as far as Desert One when disaster struck. On the night of April 24, 1980, a dust storm (haboob) forced one of the eight Navy helicopters to turn back, and another crash-landed after being disabled. The other six helicopters landed at Desert One, but another was lost to hydraulic problems. With just five helicopters operational, the commander on the scene decided to abort the mission – but that’s when the real trouble started.

© Bettmann/CORBIS

As the U.S. aircraft prepared to evacuate, one of the helicopters crashed into a C-130 carrying fuel and troops, destroying both aircraft and killing eight U.S. personnel. In the ensuing panic, all the other helicopters were abandoned – but not destroyed – so the Iranians actually came out ahead by several helicopters (some of which are still in service in the Iranian Navy).

Operation Eagle Claw was a total debacle which embarrassed America in front of the entire world and probably contributed to Jimmy Carter’s defeat in the 1980 election. Coming less than a decade after America’s defeat in Vietnam, it seemed to confirm a widely held view that America was, in Richard Nixon’s famous phrase, a “pitiful giant” burdened with an incompetent military.

In fact, it would be fairer to say that Eagle Claw suffered from overly ambitious planning, the wrong hardware, and the absence of a “red team” to point out flaws and vulnerabilities during the planning process. And it wasn’t all bad news: the humiliation endured in Eagle Claw helped spur military reforms that had already begun under the Carter administration and then gathered speed under Reagan.


While no one would ever suspect it based on Eagle Claw, the U.S. military was in the process of leapfrogging over its competitors in technology, training, and tactics – a sweeping overhaul, still on-going, which has come to be called the Revolution in Military Affairs. The paradigm shift brought about by digital command, control, and communications, along with “smart” weapons, stealth technology, and other advances, would be showcased in the devastating U.S.-led war against Iraq in 1991.

Meanwhile Iran hardly escaped from the hostage crisis unscathed, having earned the lasting enmity of one of the world’s two superpowers. During the Iran-Iraq War from 1980-1988, the U.S. wreaked its vengeance by giving technical assistance to Iraqi forces, which helped them inflict half a million casualties on Iranian forces, and the U.S. Navy destroyed the Iranian Navy in Operation Praying Mantis in April 1988. Finally on July 3, 1988, the U.S.S. Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing all 290 people aboard; while the incident was probably an accident, Khomeini viewed it as deliberate and threw in the towel in the Iran-Iraq War shortly afterwards.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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]