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10 Stainless Steel, Spring-Loaded Things You Should Know About the Swiss Army Knife (Now With a Corkscrew!)

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Image credit: Flickr user AJ Cann

Pocket-sized multitools are a dime a dozen, but the Swiss Army Knife is an icon. Its name is shorthand for versatility and its cross-emblazoned red handle has gone to the North Pole, to the top of Mount Everest, to the depths of the Amazon, and even orbited around Earth on the space shuttle. On the tamer side, the knife is also admired for its design and is displayed in the New York Museum of Modern Art and the State Museum for Applied Art in Munich.

I've had a lot of knives in my day, but only recently got my first Swiss Army Knife as a gift. I'm endlessly fascinated by it and have been reading up on its history, so here are ten bits of trivia I just had to share.

1. The Swiss Army Knife has very humble origins. Switzerland was about as poor as it got in 19th century Europe, especially in the sparsely industrialized central cantons, where unemployment spurred emigration and the shuttering of businesses. Karl Elsener, a cutler, or knife maker, desperately wanted to create jobs in his home canton of Schwyz, but to industrialize the traditionally hand-crafted production of knives would have required enormous capital. Elsener could not afford to build a factory or buy machinery so, instead, he founded the Swiss Cutlers' Union in 1884 in the village of Ibach. A small group of some two dozen craftsmen joined the cooperative, manufacturing different knives for use in kitchens, in farm fields and on hiking trails.

2. Around the turn of the 20th century, the Swiss army decided to start issuing a pocket knife to each of its soldiers. Since no Swiss company had the means to produce the quantity needed, it purchased the first 15,000 knives from a German knife manufacturer. Elsener thought that the army's knives should come from Switzerland, so when the army contract was set to expire, he and the co-op seized the opportunity. He designed a simple folding knife - the Soldier Knife, or Modell 1890, that featured a wooden handle - with a blade, a punch/reamer, a screwdriver for the maintenance of the army's new rifles, and a can opener for preparing field rations. The army brass loved it, and Elsener's co-op was able to swipe the contract from the Germans.

3. After the first successful run of Soldier Knives and just a year into their contract, the Cutlers' Union began to falter. The craftsmen couldn't keep up with demand and many of the workers quit, but the others carried on and even released a new Elsener-designed "officer's knife." The new model's tools were spring-loaded, making it lighter and allowing for the addition of a corkscrew. The army looked at the Schweizer Offiziers und Sportsmesser, or "Swiss Officers and Sports knife," but deemed a corkscrew not "essential for survival." They continued to issue their officers the standard Soldier Knife, and left them to purchase the new model on their own.

4. Elsener's knives soon found their way across Europe. During World War II, American soldiers fell in love with them and bought them up whenever they hit the PX (Post Exchange) stores on American bases. Even the Greatest Generation had a hard time getting their mouths around Schweizer Offiziers und Sportsmesser, though, so they took to calling them “Swiss Army Knives.”

5. After his mother, Victoria, died, Elsener named the company that grew out of the Cutlers' Union in her honor. She had, after all, given Karl some of the money he needed to start the operation. Later, when the company started using stainless steel in some of the knives' components, Elsener added inox - a shortening of the French term for the metal - to the end of the company name to get Victorinox.

6. In 1908, the Swiss army decided to split its knife contract, giving half the order to Elsener's company in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, and the other half to cutler Theodore Wenger's company in a French-speaking canton. They claimed this was in the interest of national harmony and absolved them of regional favoritism, but the competition probably also helped them with costs, and pushed both companies on the design front, too. Nearly a century later, in 2005, this arrangement came to an end when Victorinox purchased Wenger, reportedly to keep the Swiss Army Knife in Swiss hands after the struggling Wenger had been entertaining offers from foreign buyers.

7. Today, both Victorinox and its Wenger subsidiary continue to manufacture the knives in two Swiss factories. They each supply some 25,000 knives a year - less than a day's production - to the Swiss army. The rest of the two companies' massive output — each factory can make up to 28,000 knives a day and together they produce seven to fifteen million knives a year — goes to the civilian, mostly foreign, markets. Victorinox knives are now labeled as "The Original Swiss Army Knife" while the Wenger ones are identified as "The Genuine Swiss Army Knife."

8. The two companies put out more than 100 models of Swiss Army Knife between them, from the classic bare-bones Soldier-style knife to ones with laser pointers and 64 GB USB drives. Of the two, Wenger is more well known for its cutting-edge and unconventional models, like the ergonomically-contoured EvoGrip and the Giant, a nine-inch-wide, $1,400 monster of a knife with 85 implements. There are a few models that never got off the ground and were lost to history, too, like the one that had a special blade for cutting consistently sized slices of cheese.

9. Even with all this innovation, there have been just eight total models created for the Swiss army since 1891. The updates generally come out to accommodate changes to other army equipment, like new standard-issue rifles. These military model knives might seem alien to those familiar with the civilian version. They lack the iconic red plastic handle, and instead have a dark aluminum grip. They also feature a tool usually not found on the civilian models, meant to puncture ammunition cans and scrape carbon from the hard-to-reach parts of a firearm.

10. Karl Elsener ran the company he founded until 1918, and there has been a Karl at the helm ever since. Karl II ran the show until 1950, Karl III until 2007 and Karl IV is in charge today.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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