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The Scandalous History of Arlington National Cemetery

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UPI/Kevin Dietsch /LANDOV

Arlington is some of the most hallowed ground in the United States. More than 400,000 fallen servicemen and women are buried there and are honored with a service every Memorial Day. But despite its great importance, the cemetery has had more than its share of scandals over the last 148 years.

Illegal Beginnings

Arlington isn’t actually located in Washington, DC, but just outside it, in Virginia. That’s because the land was seized from Robert E. Lee’s plantation in 1864. There were other options for the location of a National Cemetery, but the government specifically wanted to bury Union soldiers on Lee's land as an insult to the Confederate general. Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs wanted to make sure the place was uninhabitable if the Lees ever tried to return. He ordered the graves placed as close to the mansion as possible.

After the war, the Lees owed about $1,400 in today’s money in taxes on the estate. Mrs. Lee sent someone to pay the tax, but the government refused to accept it. Instead they took half the land in a public auction and ordered the establishment of a National Cemetery.

Robert E. Lee died in 1870. Four years later his grandson and heir, Custis Lee, sued the government, claiming the land had been illegally obtained. The lawsuit reached the Supreme Court, and the outcome was 5-4 in Lee’s favor. The estate, dead bodies and all, was returned to the Lee family. But Lee’s actions were more about the principle of the thing; Meigs had done a good job, and the house and grounds were now unlivable. Lee sold it back to the government for $150,000—about $3 million today.

The Known Unknown Soldier

On Memorial Day, 1921, U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger was presented with the remains of four unidentified soldiers who had died in France during World War I. He selected the remains second from the right to be honored in the first Tomb of the Unknown on American soil. Further unknown soldiers were buried at the site after World War II and the Korean War.

By the time the Vietnam War came around, better systems were in place to correctly identify remains. There is evidence that the Air Force actually knew in 1978 that they had the remains of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie (above, at right) — they certainly examined the evidence with the thought that it belonged to Blassie — but under pressure from Vietnam veterans groups to inter an unknown soldier from that war as well, they changed the designation on the remains to unknown. On Memorial Day in 1984, the remains were placed in the tomb at Arlington (above, at left).

In 1994, POW/MIA activist Ted Sampley determined that based on available evidence, the remains were almost certainly Blassie’s. He wrote a paper on the subject and the family asked the government to disinter the remains for genetic testing that wasn’t available the decade before. The government refused. Four years later, when Sampley’s report was picked up by the national news, the government caved to public pressure. Blassie was subsequently identified and reburied in Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri. Lacking another suitable unknown, no other soldier from the Vietnam War has replaced him.

Large memorials like the Tomb of the Unknown continue to be controversial at Arlington. Because of the honor of being buried there, and because room is quickly running out, some people believe that no further memorials should be built, because they take up what little space remains for burying servicemen and women. Others feel that monuments are important to represent the fallen that are not or cannot be buried in the National Cemetery.

Recent Problems

In 2010, Arlington was back in the news for unbelievable mismanagement. After a year-long investigation, Salon found that over 200 graves had been mismarked, and in some cases more than one body was buried in one grave. Those in charge refused to cooperate with the investigation, even after some family members complained that new headstones had appeared at the site where their relatives had been buried.

Record keeping was shoddy at best, with up to half of all files from recent years lost or misplaced, and millions of dollars had been misappropriated, with some outside contractors being paid twice for one job.

When bodies were exhumed to make sure the right soldier was in the right grave, it became clear that many had been grossly and disrespectfully mishandled. One man discovered this when he was forced to dig through his son’s coffin himself in order to find an arm bearing an identifiable tattoo. At least four burial urns had been emptied into a landfill. While Arlington officials claimed that clerical errors resulted in bodies being buried on top of other bodies, the original discarded headstones were later found in a nearby stream.

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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.