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World War I Centennial: Breaking Up DuPont

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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 21st installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

June 13, 1912: Breaking Up DuPont

Image credit: Ukexpat/Wikimedia Commons

The turn of the century was a time of upheaval in the American economy, as powerful corporations formed during the latter half of the 19th century came under fire from populist politicians who accused them of conspiring with each other to gouge American consumers.

In its struggle against monopolies and trusts, the government was armed, somewhat dubiously, with the Sherman Anti-Trust Act passed by Congress in 1890, which banned anti-competitive cooperation but seemed to provide few enforcement mechanisms.

In 1902 the Sherman Anti-Trust Act was given teeth by President Teddy Roosevelt, who ordered the Department of Justice to go after the Northern Securities railroad monopoly created by J.P. Morgan, a powerful banker, resulting in the dissolution of the company in 1904 after a close vote in the Supreme Court. In 1907, Roosevelt turned government lawyers loose on John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, which was broken up into 33 companies in 1911.

Another high-profile case from this period, all the more sensational because it involved national security, concerned E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., which owned the DuPont Powder Company – the nation’s largest manufacturer of gunpowder and explosives, including all the gunpowder used by the U.S. military. DuPont owned some 40 gunpowder and explosives plants around the U.S., putting it in a position to dominate its smaller competitors. Rather than simply crush their rivals, however, the DuPont family realized it would be wiser to cooperate with them behind the scenes, forming an industry organization, the Gunpowder Trade Association, for that purpose in 1872.

In 1906 Robert S. Waddell, a former sales agent for DuPont Powder Company, launched a crusade against his former employer, alleging that DuPont was colluding with its competitors to reap huge profits by restraining competition and price-fixing. According to Waddell -- who not coincidentally had founded his own powder company to compete with DuPont -- the “Powder Trust” was bilking the U.S. government to the tune of $2,520,000 a year in illegal profits through its monopoly on the manufacture of gunpowder for the military. Waddell further alleged that the company was relying on the protection of a powerful member of the DuPont family, Senator Henry S. DuPont, to get away with it.

Nor were these charges unsubstantiated. Waddell was able to produce letters, price agreements, and internal documents from his time with DuPont showing how it worked together with other companies in the GTA to restrict competition and keep prices high. Presented with this evidence, on July 31, 1907, the U.S. Department of Justice charged DuPont and the other powder companies in the Gunpowder Trade Association with “maintaining an unlawful combination in restraint of interstate commerce” in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

Break It Up

After almost five years of legal wrangling, on June 13, 1912, the District Court of the United States for Delaware ordered that the DuPont Powder Company be broken up as part of the dissolution of the Powder Trust. The court decreed the formation of two new companies, Hercules Powder Company and Atlas Powder Company, which would receive some of DuPont’s assets in order to become effective competitors. However, as with other anti-trust decisions, the outcome was less dramatic than it looked, as the companies were still effectively controlled by DuPont through back channels.

Moreover, DuPont itself got to keep its monopoly on the manufacture of gunpowder for the U.S. military – supposedly the object of the anti-trust action in the first place. The company would go on to make a fortune during the Great War by supplying the European Allies and later the U.S. Army with high-powered explosives for artillery shells, manufacturing up to 40% of the munitions used by the Allies over the course of the war. DuPont’s revenues from the sale of powder and explosives soared from $25 million in 1914 to $319 million by 1918, totaling an astonishing $1.245 billion in this five-year period.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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