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Sailor Chic: How Peacoats Came to Be

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These days, you don’t have to be in the Navy to look like you belong on the open sea. Anyone who lives in, has visited, or has even seen pictures of other people who live in a colder climate can attest to the ubiquity of the double-breasted, structured-shoulder staple of winter wear that is the classic naval-style peacoat. Now as much at home on the shoulders of a runway model as on those of a military officer, peacoats have significantly evolved in purpose while maintaining their signature style. Though the woolen outerwear has long ceased to be a trend and likely has a long, warm future ahead of it as the go-to winter coat, there are a few uncertainties still remaining about its journey into the fashion canon.

Even the Oxford English Dictionary, the foremost source for tracing origins of words and the objects they denote, is uncertain about the etymology of the word “peacoat.” Linguists have successfully traced back the natural evolution of “peacoat” from the synonymous term “pea-jacket,” but that’s where things get fuzzy. The prevailing theory suggests that pea-jacket emerged from the Dutch compound word pijjaker, which further derives from the Middle Dutch word pij, referring to coarse woolen clothing worn by sailors—sounds familiar, but there’s little concrete evidence to support it beyond logical inference.

It certainly seems logical that the term for a seaman’s coat would have originated in the Netherlands, at the time a foremost global naval power, but competing theories argue that the similarities are merely due to chance. The U.S. Navy claims that the coat came first and the name came after: Tailored from a heavy, hard-wearing blue twill fabric known as pilot cloth and abbreviated to “p-cloth,” the coats naturally came to be called p-jackets and eventually pea coats. A British clothing merchant named Edgar Camplin is also credited with the invention of a coat for petty (non-commissioned) officers of the British Navy—a “petty coat,” or “p. coat” for short; however, this claim lacks any historical evidence beyond the clothier’s own testimony.

A WWI-era peacoat button, featuring a small anchor and a perimeter of 13 stars. Image courtesy of The Fedora Lounge.

 Despite the absence of a definitive origin story, the peacoat we know today nevertheless possesses distinct features that recall its military and seafaring history. Its practical qualities make it the ideal protection against icy winds on land or on sea: Its thick wool construction is augmented by the double-breasted front, which provides an extra layer of warmth, and its oversized, peaked lapels afford some dignity to collar-poppers seeking additional coverage on their exposed necks. A genuine peacoat features two vertical slash pockets, intended not for storage but to keep the wearer’s hands warm—the only coat intentionally designed to accommodate that need. All designs feature a double row of buttons down the front (originally eight, but decreased to six after WWII), though the anchor design has changed significantly since it was first borrowed from the official seal of the Lord High Admiral of Great Britain.

Classic black “fouled anchor” (surrounded by rope) button design. Image courtesy of The Gentleman’s Gazette.

Although official Navy surplus peacoats are approved for use by civilians, and there are innumerable fashionable adaptations of the design available for sale, the U.S. Navy has strict regulations in place for correct wear by its enlisted sailors:

“Button all buttons except collar button. Collar button may be buttoned in inclement weather. Wear the jumper collar inside the coat.  Sleeves are to reach about three-quarters of distance from the wrist to the knuckles when arms hang naturally at the sides.”

Thankfully, everyone else is permitted to wear their peacoat as they please. I like to accessorize with a scarf.

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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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