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Youtube/Wikimedia Commons

How the U.S. Army Made War with the Language of Peace

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Youtube/Wikimedia Commons

In the 1950s and 60s, the U.S. Army conducted training exercises using an imaginary enemy named, quite simply, Aggressor. The characteristics of Aggressor were worked out in realistic detail. Soldiers assigned to play the part of Aggressor troops had to learn the organization of its ranks and the types of weapons it used. They wore special uniforms and insignia and even carried fully realized fake identity papers. They also had to speak a different language, and that language, in a twist so ironic it is almost cruel, was Esperanto, the language of peace.

The Hope

Esperanto was created in the 1880s by Ludwik Zamenhof, a sensitive soul who grew up in Eastern Europe among Yiddish, Russian, Polish, and German speakers who had nothing but hostility toward each other. As a child he felt "the heavy sadness of the diversity of languages," seeing it as "the primary force which divides the human family into enemy parts," and he vowed he would do something to solve this problem.

He created Esperanto, a hybrid of European languages with a simplified, regular grammar, designed to be easily learned. He hoped it would serve as a neutral linguistic common ground where people of different nations could meet without kicking up the dust of tricky history and power imbalance that their national languages couldn't seem to shake.

Surprisingly, after Zamenhof published a description of Esperanto in 1887, it really took off. The first international Esperanto congress was held in 1905, and over the next decade every year saw more Esperanto clubs, journals, magazines, and books. Membership in Esperanto organizations grew steadily.

The first Esperanto Congress. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

At the same time, other inventors offered their own, competing versions of easy-to-learn European hybrid languages. They touted the superiority of their designs and advertised the practical advantages to commerce and science that their languages would bring, but none of those other projects lasted very long. People came to Esperanto for various reasons, but the ones who stayed and helped it grow were not in it for commerce or science or the particular qualities of the language. They were in it for the ideal: peace for humanity, brought about by a common language. They sang about it in their anthem, La Espero (The Hope):

En la mondon venis nova sento (Into the world came a new feeling)
tra la mondo iras forta voko (through the world goes a mighty call)
per flugiloj de facila vento (by means of the wings of a gentle wind)
nun de loko flugu ĝi al loko (now let it fly from place to place)

The 'Aggressor Stomp'

So how did Esperanto come to be, in the words of one Army field manual title, "the Aggressor Language"? Almost everything about it, except for the whole language-of-peace part, made it perfect for the Army's purposes. It had become, as stated in the field manual, "a living and current media of international oral and written communication" with a well-developed vocabulary. It was regular and easy to learn, at least to the level needed for drills, and most importantly, it was "consistent with the neutral or international identification implied by Aggressor." Using Spanish or Russian would have been politically problematic. Making up another language from scratch would have been too much trouble. Esperanto was neutral, easy, and there.

But what a century it had endured in order to be there! Esperanto's whole life was marked by war. Zamenhof's beloved brother killed himself when the Russians ordered him into the army during World War I because he couldn't bear the thought of once again experiencing what he had seen as an army doctor during the Russo-Japanese War. Zamenhof died soon after that, worn out from the news of destruction coming in from all corners of Europe. His children would survive, only to perish in the concentration camps of the next war. Esperantists were persecuted by Hitler, who saw the language as part of a Jewish conspiracy, and sent to the Gulag by Stalin, who saw it as a dangerous badge of cosmopolitanism.

Yet Esperanto survived, weakened, but with its peaceful ideals intact, despite the fact that the savage events of the intervening decades had rendered those ideals hopelessly naïve.

The field manual for the Aggressor language gives a brief description of Esperanto grammar which looks much like what is found in any Esperanto textbook, followed by a dictionary of useful terms which looks like the innocent dream of Zamenhof reflected in a distorted mirror of evil. Unlike most language learning dictionaries it does not include basic words like child (infano) or love (amo), but it does include the following:

armored carrier (kirasportilo), bombing run (bombardaproksimigo), tear gas (larma gaso), insubordination (malobeo), barbed wire (pikildrato), fire power (pafpovo), stab (pikegi), punch (pugnobati), lynch (linĉi), choke (sufoki), strafe (ŝtrafi), slash (tranĉo), poison (veneni), torture (torturi), kill (mortigi)

These are words you need when you're playing the enemy in a war game. It was a testament to the flexibility and productivity of Esperanto that the army was able to coin phrases, like senresalta pafilo (recoilless rifle) that had probably never been uttered by an Esperanto speaker before. It had also probably never occurred to an Esperantist that, as claimed in the 1960 Army Information Digest, "performing 'Aggressor Stomp' to orders barked out in Esperanto helps to instill in each man a feeling that the enemy he portrays is different from U.S. troops."

For the Esperantists, the language had always been a means to feel kinship in place of difference, and this ideal sometimes showed up in the unlikeliest places, displayed by real aggressors during real wars. After the occupation of the Netherlands in World War II, an Esperantist went to check on the building where the local club used to meet in Arnhem and found a note attached to the locked door. It had been left by a German soldier, and it said, in Esperanto, "the house is deserted. A visitor cannot go in. Will the 'mighty call' no longer 'go through the world'? Take courage, soon another time shall come! Long live Esperanto! –A German Esperantist."

The Army removed Esperanto from its field manual in the 1970s because it took too long to learn to be practical. Esperantists, unconcerned with mere practicality, continued speaking, joking, singing, fighting, and trying to bring people together in Esperanto. And they are still at it today.

In this U.S. Army informational film, you can see the Americans capture Aggressor prisoners and take them to a command post "where a U.S. interrogating officer was ready to go to work on them in their own language."

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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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Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]