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"Shipbuilding" by Elvis Costello

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Written by Elvis Costello & Clive Langer (1983)
Performed by Elvis Costello & The Attractions

The Music

In 1982, British producer Clive Langer was working on a song to pitch to singer Robert Wyatt. Inspired by Wyatt’s take on Billie Holiday’s classic “Strange Fruit,” Langer wrote a moody, minor key melody. Stuck for suitable words to his tune, Langer played it for his friend Elvis Costello. Within a few days, Costello had written a poetic and emotional lyric about the Falklands War.

Costello has said that he came at the song from the perspective of workers in British naval yards during the build-up to the war. The early 80s was an economically depressed time for Britain and the idea was that, while people in small harbor towns would be glad for new shipbuilding jobs, it was all at the expense of the boys who were being sent off to die in battle.

Robert Wyatt recorded the song in 1982, but Costello’s version, released a year later on his Punch The Clock album, is better-known. Costello’s “Shipbuilding” is also remarkable for being one of the last recorded performances by legendary jazz trumpet player Chet Baker.

The History

At the height of its imperialist reach, the British Empire controlled India, Australia, several African countries, and over a dozen islands around the world. Hence the old expression, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.”

But by the early 1980s, there were only a few territories left that hadn’t fought and gained their independence from the British. The Falklands was one of them. A tiny collection of islands off the coast of Argentina, with a population of just under 3000, the Falklands had been under British rule since 1833.

But in the second half of the 20th century, Argentina made a claim on the Falklands. There were a few failed incursions in the 1960s and 70s. Then, in early 1982, President Leopold Galtieri, the head of Argentina’s new ruling military junta, started beating the drums of war. Newspaper articles spelled out a plan of attack. Galtieri gave speeches to stoke patriotic fervor. And on April 2, 1982, he sent troops to the Falklands. As with many declarations of war, this one was designed to whip up national pride while drawing attention away from serious domestic issues—in this case, human rights and economic problems.

Within two days, the Argentine army had overpowered a small troop of British Royal Marines and seized the Falklands capital of Port Stanley.

The British Response

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British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher tried diplomatic pressure on Argentina, but when that failed, she ordered a naval task force to take the islands back. Led by aircraft carriers HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible at sea, with Sea Harrier fighter planes providing cover from the air, the British army moved into the Falklands in mid-April.

The war lasted about two months. It wasn’t much of a contest. After the British sank an Argentine submarine and a light cruiser, the Argentine fleet remained in port for the duration of the war. And because the runway at Port Stanley was too short for modern fighter planes, the Argentine air force had to fly from the mainland, which put them at a disadvantage.

As the British advanced onto land, their troops outmaneuvered the Argentine commandos, defeating them in several key towns. By mid-June, British forces had the islands blockaded at sea and encircled on land. Attacks on Port Stanley lasted a week before the Argentine army surrendered.

In the war, Britain suffered 258 dead and 777 wounded. Argentina lost 649 and had 1068 wounded.

Though the Falkland Islands remain under British control, a recent open letter from Argentinian President Cristina de Kirchner to British Prime Minister David Cameron stirred trouble, calling for the islands to be returned. The British have rejected the idea of any negotiation, saying the Falkland Islanders have chosen to be British. Their statement said, “There are three parties to this debate, not just two as Argentina likes to pretend. The Islanders can’t just be written out of history.”

The Islanders will hold a referendum in March 2013 to determine their political status.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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