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5 Things You Didn't Know About U.S. Army Special Forces

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In hot spots around the globe, the Green Berets are often the first in and the last out. Experts in direct action and masters of unconventional warfare, Special Forces soldiers infiltrate foreign countries, provide humanitarian aid, raise armies, and train them for combat effectiveness. Here are a few things you might not know about them.

1. The ending of Dr. Strangelove wasn't so strange after all.

During the Cold War, there were contingency plans in case the Soviet Union attempted to roll their tanks across Europe. The goal would be to stop them at all costs, and this would require obliterating key highways, tunnels, airfields, and bridges. While conventional explosives might do the job, it would take hours to achieve, and only slow the Soviet advance by days at best, when weeks were needed. Project GREENLIGHT sought to address this problem.

The fastest, most effective, most surreptitious way to target enemy infrastructure would be to parachute bomb-toting Special Forces soldiers to their objectives. But there was a catch. In his autobiography, Sergeant Major Joe Garner described his work with the project. There was a heavy rucksack attached to him when he test jumped from a military helicopter. The landing was rough, but he walked away from it. It was proof-positive that the plan would work, but it wasn't until much later that he learned what GREENLIGHT was. "It was a man-carried nuclear device. That's when the realization hit me. I was probably the first soldier to free-fall strapped to an atomic bomb."

In addition to destroying infrastructure, carefully placed atomic blasts would make enemy forces "bottleneck," where they could be destroyed with other nuclear weapons. Three hundred backpack nukes were made. They were called Special Atomic Demolition Munitions, and most were assigned to 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) in Germany. In a worst-case scenario, their job was to strap on one-kiloton nuclear weapons and parachute behind the Iron Curtain. They would commit nuclear suicide in an apocalyptic war to stop the Soviets from conquering Europe.

Thankfully, of course, the weapons were never used.

2. The green beret came from a British commando school.

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During World War II, select U.S. Army Rangers and U.S. Office of Strategic Services personnel volunteered for an intense commando course in Scotland. The pace was relentless and the physical requirements were demanding. Exercises were conducted with live ammunition and real explosives. The soldiers were trained in field survival, mountaineering, snow warfare, small boat operations and river crossings.

British Commandos wearing distinctive green berets conducted the school, and those American soldiers who successfully made it through the course were awarded the same beret. The U.S. Army didn’t authorize it for wear, but the hardened American commandos didn't worry too much about that. They secretly wore it while out in the field and away from conventional forces.

3. John F. Kennedy is institutionally revered by Special Forces.

The army eventually established its own Special Forces school, and the quiet tradition of the green beret continued. When President Kennedy visited Fort Bragg in 1961, General William Yarborough, father of the modern Green Berets, ordered his men to wear the unauthorized beret proudly. Kennedy was so impressed with the training and capabilities of Special Forces that he issued the order permitting the green beret to be part of the uniform, calling it "a symbol of excellence, a badge of courage, a mark of distinction in the fight for freedom."

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When President Kennedy was assassinated, Special Forces soldiers didn't forget the trust he placed in them, and the legitimacy he bestowed upon them. Members of 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) took black markers and drew black borders around the flashes of their berets in remembrance. (Flashes are distinctive shields sewn onto the front of the headgear). This wasn't authorized, but again, that didn't concern the Special Forces soldiers too much. It would later gain formal approval, and the black border remains part of the 1st SFG(A) flash today. Meanwhile, the unit charged with training prospective Special Forces soldiers was renamed the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center, and every year, Special Forces lay a wreath at the fallen president's gravesite.

4. Special Forces Medics are walking hospitals.

When most people picture Special Forces soldiers, they imagine commandos kicking down doors and taking down bad guys. While such direct action missions are part of their job, so too are humanitarian operations. In many ways, Special Forces are soldier/ambassadors, and gaining the trust of locals is a crucial aspect to unconventional warfare. No one better embodies this ethos than the Special Forces medic.

They are among the best-trained and most respected medics in the military. They're trained to treat battlefield injuries, but they're equally capable of walking into a village and establishing a medical clinic. They can perform physical exams, diagnose the textbook of diseases found in the Third World, and prescribe medicine for treatment. They can vaccinate villagers. They can perform minor surgery, deliver babies, treat infants and children, bandage wounds, and set broken bones. They're trained in parasitology to identify nasty bacteria found in water wells. They can even perform dentistry.

If that weren’t enough, these guys are trained veterinarians, which makes sense when you consider the importance of livestock in far-flung lands. Taken together, medics from a Special Forces team can make a real difference in the lives of a lot of people, and that goes a long way toward establishing a common bond.

5. Popular culture has been mining Special Forces lore for decades.

In many ways, Special Forces have become a shortcut for screenwriters to give characters inexplicable, almost superhuman fighting abilities. Accordingly, such soldiers have shown up in places expected (John Rambo, John Matrix, and Jason Bourne) and unexpected (Martin Riggs and Dex Dexter). On The Simpsons, Springfield's own Principal Skinner was a Special Forces soldier during the Vietnam War.

We've all heard of the A-Team (“Framed for a crime they didn’t commit...”), but what does that mean, exactly? Special Forces Groups are made up of battalions and companies, most of which consist of Operational Detachment-Alphas (ODAs), or A-Teams. These are 12-man teams containing weapons sergeants (who can fire anything with a trigger), medics, communications sergeants (who are trained in everything from Morse code to establishing secure links with satellites), and so on. They are self-sustaining and autonomous, speak multiple languages, and are able to operate in the middle of nowhere for extended periods. (Notably, it takes longer to train a Special Forces soldier than it does to train a fighter pilot.) Each ODA also has an insertion specialty. Some focus on the air, by way of HALO (high altitude low opening) free-fall parachuting. Some are highly trained in mountaineering, while other specialize in vehicle infiltration or combat diving.

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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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