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A Short History of Revolutionary and Civil War Submarines

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Getty Images

When I hear the word “submarine,” I think of something out of The Hunt For Red October. Yet sub-surface warfare predates the Cold War by over a century. In fact, the first conflict to put military submarines in action was the Revolutionary War, and it was the American Civil War which saw the world’s first spurt of successful submarine combat.

Underwater Revolution

In 1775, Connecticut resident and Yale University science student David Bushnell constructed a one-man craft which was described as resembling “two upper shells of a tortoise joined together." Appropriately, it was dubbed the Turtle. An amazed George Washington called the project “an effort of genius.”

The Turtle was eventually lost when a vessel carrying it sank in the Hudson River, and when the War of 1812 cropped up, a new one-man submarine was crafted for the American cause by another Connecticut inventor named Silas Halsey. Halsey went down with his ship on the night of June 30, 1813. It wouldn’t be the last time a primitive submarine claimed the life of its builder.

Uncivil Ships

Submarine building continued during the Civil War. The Confederates’ first underwater attack vessel—the CSS Pioneer—was built in New Orleans in 1862, but was later dismantled prior to the Union’s conquest of the city. Though it was never used, the new ship had dwarfed its forebears at 30 feet in length and could hold a whopping two crewmembers. The Pioneer II (also known as the American Diver) had a more hydrodynamic design and featured an expanded interior built for four to five men. But the American Diver met a watery grave in Alabama’s Mobile Bay during a test-run in 1863 (though her crew was rescued).

Meanwhile, the North was busily working on its own submarine. A Union sub called the USS Alligator was built and tested in 1861. Its greatest innovation was a sealable hatchway that would allow divers to exit the vessel underwater. In 1863, the unmanned 45-foot ship was lost at sea while being towed to Charleston, and has never been recovered despite decades of searching.

Later that year, a vastly-improved ship named the H.L. Hunley was built. At nearly 40 feet in length and 7.5 tons in weight, the vessel was intended for a crew of eight: one man would steer while his companions would sit along a wooden bench and manually rotate a crankshaft that turned the propeller.

The H.L. Hunley sank twice during its training period, killing most or all of its crew on each occasion, including her designer and namesake Horace Hunley on the second attempt. But she was recovered each time, and finally embarked on her first mission on the night of February 17, 1864.

The task was to destroy a Union vessel in the blockade of Charleston’s outer harbor. To accomplish this, a 17-foot-long spar had been fitted to the Hunley’s bow, with a barbed container of explosives secured to its tip. The stealthy vessel deposited its torpedo upon the USS Housatonic, which sank after the resulting explosion—the first ship in world history to be capsized by a submarine attack. For unknown reasons, the Hunley herself also sank shortly thereafter.

The Hunley was eventually rediscovered in 1970. Thirty years later, after extensive archaeological analysis, she was finally brought back to the surface, and is undergoing further study in the Warren Lasch Conservation Center. Plans for a permanent museum are currently being laid out.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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]