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Music History #15: "Enola Gay"

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“Enola Gay”
Written by Andy McCluskey (1980)
Performed by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (better known as OMD)

The Music

“We were both geeks about World War II airplanes,” said Andy McCluskey. “The most famous and influential single bomber was Enola Gay. Obvious choice for us, really.”

In 1980, McCluskey and his musical partner Paul Humphreys scored their first hit as OMD with “Enola Gay.” Though it borrowed the name of the famous Boeing B-29 plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the lyric was vague enough to be interpreted as a love song. The only overt war references were to “8:15,” the time that the bomb was dropped, and “Little Boy,” the code name for the bomb itself.

The song reached #8 on the UK singles chart.

The History

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The most famous war plane in history was built in 1945, as part of a batch of 15 Silverplate B-29 bombers specially modified for atomic bombing missions.

The plane arrived on the South Seas island of Tinian in July 1945. The island, formerly under Japanese control and used as a sugar plantation, had been seized by U.S. forces the year before. The Navy turned it into a 40,000-person military base.

In the month leading up to the Hiroshima bombing, the plane, still unnamed, flew eight practice missions and two regular bombing missions over Japan. On one, it dropped a 6300 “pumpkin” bomb, designed to simulate the “Fat Man” atomic bomb (the code name reportedly referred to Sydney Greenstreet’s character in the movie The Maltese Falcon), which would soon be dropped on Nagasaki.

The planned attack on Hiroshima for August 1st was postponed for a few days because of a typhoon. On August 5th, while preparing for the mission, pilot Colonel Paul Tibbets named the B-29 after his mother, Enola Gay Tibbets. Tibbets later said, “My dad never supported me with the flying. He said, ‘If you want to go kill yourself, go ahead, I don’t give a damn.’ Then Mom just quietly said, ‘Paul, if you want to go fly airplanes, you’re going to be all right.’”

Tibbets was born in 1915. After dropping out of college, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Over the course of the combat missions he flew in Europe during the first part of World War II, Tibbets earned a reputation as one of the best fliers in the service. He even served as a personal pilot to General Dwight Eisenhower.

After returning to the US in 1944, Tibbets did test flying of development B-29s. This led to him being chosen to command the atomic bombing mission in Japan.

Tibbets was not completely briefed on the nature of the Little Boy bomb. He later said, “[They said] the only thing we can tell you about it is, ‘It’s going to explode with the force of 20,000 tons of TNT.’ I’d never seen one pound of TNT blow up. I’d never heard of anybody who’d seen 100 pounds of TNT blow up. All I felt was that this was gonna be one hell of a big bang.”

The Bomb and Its Aftermath
At 8:15 am on August 6th, the Enola Gay dropped the Little Boy atomic bomb on Hiroshima. From the bomb’s fall to the initial 2,000 foot burst altitude (its mushroom cloud eventually climbed to 40,000 feet), it lasted 43 seconds (Tibbets would describe the cloud as “black as hell, and it had light and colors and white in it, and the top was like a folded up Christmas tree”). Little Boy’s explosion moved with a vertical velocity at just over the speed of sound.

As Tibbets maneuvered the Enola Gay away from the blast, the plane was rocked by a series of shock waves. Below there was instant death and obliteration. In a split second, Hiroshima ceased to exist. The radioactive fallout from the bomb caused horrific damage for years afterwards.

In the years since, both Tibbets and the Enola Gay have been at the center of various controversies.

In 1976, Tibbets performed a re-enactment of the bombing in a restored B-29, at a Texas air show. There was even a mushroom cloud. Afterwards, the US government made a formal apology to Japan.

After its mission, the Enola Gay was kept at various air fields, before ending up at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. In 1960, it was disassembled by a team from the Smithsonian Institution. Its parts were kept in storage for over twenty years. In 1984, a restoration of the plane began. Then in 1995, the partially rebuilt Enola Gay was displayed at the Smithsonian’s 50th anniversary exhibition about the Hiroshima bombing. Critics, including the American Legion and the Air Force Association, said the exhibit focused too much on the Japanese casualties, rather than what they felt were the legitimate reasons why the bomb was necessary to end the war.

The restored fuselage of the plane went on display. Protests continued, and there was one incident where three people were arrested for throwing ash and human blood on the plane.

In 2003, the Enola Gay's restoration was finally complete. It is now on regular display in a museum annex at Washington Dulles Airport.

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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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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]