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World War I Centennial: Even Bigger Battleships

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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 22nd installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

June 19, 1912: Even Bigger Battleships

The naval arms race between Britain and Germany (along with smaller naval arms races between other European powers) was precipitated by a new ship, the HMS Dreadnought, which revolutionized naval weaponry. Her size, armor, and firepower essentially made every other ship in the world obsolete when she entered service in 1906. In fact, “dreadnought” soon became shorthand for any battleship built along similar specifications, as well as a unit of measure for comparing naval strength and building programs -- with endless attention paid to how many dreadnoughts each navy would boast by a certain point in the future.

Of course, none of this meant that dreadnoughts represented a final, definitive stage in naval design; as in any kind of arms race, you could always go bigger and better. Thus when Britain found its naval dominance challenged by Germany’s own naval construction program (which envisioned, by 1916, a High Seas Fleet composed of three active battle squadrons, including 25 dreadnoughts and eight battle cruisers, versus 28 dreadnoughts and nine battle cruisers for the Royal Navy), the Brits took the competition to the next level.

On June 19, 1912, the Royal Navy Admiralty, headed by First Lord Winston Churchill, approved the design for a new, even bigger battleship, called the “Queen Elizabeth” class after the HMS Queen Elizabeth, the first ship in the series. These “super-dreadnoughts” boasted guns capable of lobbing a 1,920-pound explosive shell, measuring 15 inches in diameter, to a range of 18.5 miles; by comparison, the 13.5-inch guns carried by the previous intermediate (“Iron Duke”) class of dreadnoughts could send a 1,400-pound shell to a distance of 13.5 miles. The Admiralty initially planned to build four of these monsters, with the first scheduled to launch in 1913.

Thanks to the influence of a key Churchill advisor, the (temporarily) retired Admiral Jackie Fisher, the new Queen Elizabeth class battleships would also be powered by oil rather than coal, allowing them to go faster than their coal-powered predecessors and rivals, with a maximum speed of 24 knots (27.6 miles per hour) versus 21.25 knots (24.4 mph) for the Iron Dukes.

The only problem was that, unlike coal, there was virtually no oil to be found in the British Isles (the discovery of North Sea oil lay decades in the future), raising the question of how to secure a steady supply. Reluctant to rely on foreign suppliers like U.S.-based Standard Oil, Churchill once again tapped Fisher to figure out a solution, resulting in the British government buying a majority share in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, later known as British Petroleum, in 1913.

Russia’s Naval Program

As noted, the British-German naval race was just the most prominent of a number of naval rivalries unfolding around Europe: to the east, Russia embarked on a program to build up its naval forces as part of a strategy to contest German control of the Baltic Sea and Turkish control of the Black Sea. On June 20, 1912, the Russian Duma approved an extremely ambitious naval construction program which was projected to cost $245 million (in contemporary U.S. dollars) over the next five years. Few big ships were actually completed before the outbreak of the Great War forced the government to divert money to land forces, but Russia’s plans for a big navy still contributed significantly to growing international tension in the pre-war years.

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
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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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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.