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Library of Congress

WWI Centennial: U.S. Adopts Draft

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Library of Congress

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 276th installment in the series. 

 

May 18, 1917: U.S. Adopts Draft

 

After the end of the U.S. Civil War, conscription was swiftly abolished and the American military reverted to its traditional all-volunteer basis, with the U.S. Army bolstered by National Guard units when needed. During the Spanish-American War of 1898, the U.S. Army swelled to around a quarter million, all volunteers and National Guardsmen, and U.S. forces involved in the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902 totaled 126,000. Later the Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa in northern Mexico in 1916-1917 numbered just 10,000 men, with roughly another 130,000 guarding the border.

 

By the time the United States entered the First World War in April 1917, the U.S. Army tallied 128,000 officers and men, along with 182,535 mobilized National Guardsmen. Needless to say, these figures were laughably small compared to the monstrous machines now locked in a titanic death struggle in Europe. In the spring of 1917 Germany had around 5.5 million men under arms, the British Empire 4.5 million, and France had two million serving on the Western Front alone – and these were just a fraction of the total manpower mobilized over the course of the war (France mobilized a total of 8.3 million men, including around half a million colonial troops, from 1914-1918).

 

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Library of Congress

Although America had adopted an unconvincing “preparedness program” in 1916, raising the target size for the National Guard to 450,000 by 1921, this goal was far from being realized, and the Americans would obviously be unable to make more than a symbolic contribution to the Allied war effort in terms of manpower in the near future: in July 1917 just 20,000 Americans were deployed in the American Expeditionary Force in Europe, increasing to 129,000 by the end of the year. 

However the United States was hardly prepared to play a secondary role in the long run, demanding an energetic, decisive intervention to bring Germany to terms and end the war. To accomplish this the country would have to train and equip armed forces numbering four million by the end of 1918 – a massive undertaking which would require months of feverish effort, including the construction of a whole network of training camps and, most importantly, bringing back the draft. 

President Woodrow Wilson set the ball rolling on May 18, 1917, when he signed into law the Selective Service Act passed by Congress, requiring all men ages 21-30 to register for military service on June 5, 1917, with another round of registration scheduled on June 5, 1918 for those who turned 21 after the previous date. As in other belligerent powers that adopted conscription, young men who were unmarried and had no dependents were the first class to be called. Ultimately 25 million American men would register, and 2.5 million would be drafted, while most of the remaining two million volunteered. 

Beginning in late July 1917 draft committees around the country would conduct random drawings from the first class to be called After being called up, potential recruits underwent medical examinations by boards of doctors to determine whether they were fit enough to serve in the Army. These cursory medical reviews clearly erred on the side of passing candidates as fit: the legendary American folk artist Henry Darger somehow managed to pass a medical review and was briefly drafted into the Army despite glaring emotional and developmental issues, not to mention trouble with his knee and eye (to its credit the Army eventually rejected him anyway). 

Nonetheless they rejected around half a million candidates as unfit for a variety of reasons, and medical records from these examinations leave a mixed portrait of American public health in the first part of the 20th century: top reasons disqualifying individuals for service included bad vision, insufficient height or weight, epilepsy, tuberculosis, venereal disease (especially syphilis), goiter, general “mental deficiency,” bad teeth, and curvature of the spine.

 

 

To induce compliance with the draft the government at all levels unleashed a veritable flood of propaganda, including vivid posters meant to appeal to the patriotism, honor, masculinity and sense of self-worth of young American men. Easily the most memorable image of the propaganda campaign mounted by the new Committee for Public Information featured the iconic image of “Uncle Sam” pointing at the viewer with the caption “I want YOU for the U.S. Army” (top). The poster was originally drawn by illustrator James Montgomery Flagg as a cover for Leslie’s Weekly magazine during the preparedness debate in July 1916, but its popularity exploded in 1917-1918, when over four million copies of the poster were printed. Flagg later claimed he used his own face a model for Uncle Sam.

 

See the previous installment or all entries.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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iStock
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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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