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Thomas Farrell, the Man Who Built the World

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Wikimedia Commons

In our Retrobituaries series, we spotlight those departed whose lives are insufficiently celebrated. Here is a look at the life of Major General Thomas Farrell, who died at 75 in 1967.

After Thomas Farrell died, it’s hard to believe that the world didn’t just give up and stop building things. Because while he was alive, Farrell, an Army general, seemed to help build everything. Throughout his life, he was one of those eerily competent guys whose name topped the go-to lists of military and civilian leaders alike for projects involving something (literally) as small as an atom or as large as Manhattan. 

1. Step One: Build the Panama Canal.

Farrell grew up a farm boy, but after attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute became an engineer. (Notable alumni of Rensselaer: George W.G. Ferris, of the wheel; Theodore Judah, driving force behind the Transcontinental Railroad; Washington Roebling, chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge; George Low, who managed Apollo 11; Ted Hoff, father of the microprocessor—are you seeing a pattern here?) After graduation, he set off to Panama, where he helped build the Panama Canal. 

2. He fought in a war or two.

After three years of working on the Panama Canal, Farrell had a pretty good idea of how to manage really large projects involving a lot of people. While there, he worked alongside the Army Corps of Engineers, which completed the canal. That experience is possibly the reason he joined the Army Reserve when he returned to the United States. Soon after, he led an engineering company in World War I. That was only his first war. He later served in World War II, and returned to active duty during the Korean War to help lead the Defense Production Administration, which directed materials production and manufacturing for the new Department of Defense.

3. He was a hero.

The second-highest decoration bestowed by the Army is the Distinguished Service Cross. The medal was first established during World War I to recognize “extraordinary heroism,” which must have been “so notable and have involved risk of life so extraordinary as to set the [recipient] apart from his comrades.” Thomas Farrell was an engineer—he built things for the Army like roads and bridges. In 1918, then-Major Farrell’s construction battalion in World War I was temporarily repurposed as infantry to fight in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. When he was ordered to secure a certain hill, Farrell “led his battalion to the attack, seized and held this vital point despite the fact that he was attacked by greatly superior numbers on three sides and nearly surrounded by strong enemy forces who showed extraordinary determination to regain this highly important position. He held the hill until reinforcements could reach him after darkness” the following day. As his citation for the Distinguished Service Medal continued, “His fearless leadership, utter disregard for his own safety, and complete devotion to duty raised the morale of his battalion to a high pitch and inspired them to acts of great endeavor.”

4. He built a few things in New York, too.

Most people would be content with a biography like that, and set life on cruise control for a while. Not Thomas Farrell. After the war, he taught at West Point before returning to reserve status in the Army. The governor of New York appointed him state Commissioner of Canals and Waterways. (If he was good enough for Panama, he was good enough for the Empire State.) He later led construction and engineering for the state Department of Public Works. Among the little hobby projects in his portfolio? LaGuardia Airport.

5. You’re probably familiar with his work in World War II.

In February 1941, it was looking like the United States might get soon get involved in World War II, and Farrell returned to active duty. He was made executive officer to Major General Leslie Groves at the office of the Quartermaster General, beginning a partnership that would change the world. At the time, the Quartermaster Corps was a disaster of an organization, unable to stick to a budget, timeline, or project. (Among the chaotic, disorganized projects that Groves and Farrell had to set right was construction of the Pentagon.) This was a particularly bad time for incompetence—Hitler was on the move. Groves and Farrell restructured the entirety of the Quartermaster Corps, and, while I don’t want to spoil the ending, the United States managed to build an effective infrastructure to handle the war to come. On December 8, 1941, the United States declared war on Japan. 

(“What’s a quartermaster?” you ask. Good question! The Quartermaster Corps is a logistics branch of the Army that concerns itself with supplies, supply lines, food, and fuel. Remember Q from the James Bond movies? Q was short for quartermaster. When Farrell returned to active duty in 1941, the Quartermaster Corps was also responsible for construction projects.)

6. The biggest engineering project of the war? Yeah, Farrell was there.

The construction of the Ledo Road was the largest engineering project of World War II. It involved building a massive supply line from Ledo, India, to Kūnmíng, China. (We were in India and China in World War II? Yeah buddy!) The goal was to supply the Chinese before Japan could conquer it. The Japanese cut off the previous supply line, the Burma Road. The possibility of actually building the Ledo Road, which led through Pangsau Pass, a steep and curvy avenue that required the removal of 100,000 cubic feet per mile, was theoretical at best. Oh, and monsoons were a regular problem during the road’s construction. Eleven hundred Americans died over the course of the project.

As leader of the theater’s Construction Division, Thomas Farrell managed all of the work in India. One of his most important tasks was building a permanent bridge across the Irrawaddy River, something that had never before been achieved. The rising and falling of the river’s waterline and those aforementioned monsoons had previously made such a project impossible. So naturally Colonel Farrell made it happen. The resulting bridge was two lanes and 1627 feet long. Eight hundred fifty-three feet of the bridge was engineered as a floating pontoon structure to handle the variable water level. 

7. To keep the world safe, “we must arm to the teeth with the winning weapon.”

Major General Groves, leader of the most important, most secret project of the war, was offered “any officer in the Army, no matter who he is or what duty he is on” to be his second-in-command. His first choice was Thomas Farrell. As Farrell recalled, Groves “had too much top secret information wrapped up in his skull,” and the secretary of war “used to have nightmares dreaming what would happen if Groves were knocked off—one way or another—so I stepped in to share Groves’s secrets.” 

The big secret? The Manhattan Project. When Farrell was brought on to the project, he was given a 36-hour crash course in nuclear physics. But it was only after holding an actual piece of plutonium that he understood the project underway. To his surprise, the plutonium was warm in his hands. “It wasn't a cold piece of metal, but it was really a piece of metal that seemed to be working inside. Then maybe for the first time I began to believe some of the fantastic tales the scientists had told about this nuclear power.” As he recalled, “The odds were four to one against our developing a bomb that could actually be dropped during World War II. Even if we did ... not a living soul knew what an atomic bomb would do.” There was a real worry among scientists that the Bomb might spark an uncontrolled chain reaction and accidentally destroy the world. (Edward Teller was charged with studying the problem.) This led to some grim humor on the eve of the first test when Enrico Fermi took bets as to whether the Bomb would ignite the planet’s atmosphere. 

On the morning of the test, recalled Farrell, “The scene inside the shelter was dramatic beyond words ... Everyone in that room knew the awful potentialities of the thing that they thought was about to happen. The scientists felt that their figuring must be right and that the bomb had to go off but there was in everyone's mind a strong measure of doubt ... We were reaching into the unknown and we did not know what might come of it.”

8. “Words are inadequate.”

Wrote Farrell of the big moment: “In that brief instant in the remote New Mexico desert the tremendous effort of the brains and brawn of all these people came suddenly and startlingly to the fullest fruition. Dr. Oppenheimer, on whom had rested a very heavy burden, grew tenser as the last seconds ticked off. He scarcely breathed. He held on to a post to steady himself. For the last few seconds, he stared directly ahead and then when the announcer shouted ‘Now!’ and there came this tremendous burst of light followed shortly thereafter by the deep growing roar of the explosion, his face relaxed into an expression of tremendous relief. Several of the observers standing back of the shelter to watch the lighting effects were knocked flat by the blast. 

"The tension in the room let up and all started congratulating each other. Everyone sensed ‘This is it!’ No matter what might happen now all knew that the impossible scientific job had been done. Atomic fission would no longer be hidden in the cloisters of the theoretical physicists' dreams. It was almost full grown at birth. It was a great new force to be used for good or for evil. There was a feeling in that shelter that those concerned with its nativity should dedicate their lives to the mission that it would always be used for good and never for evil.

"The effects could well be called unprecedented, magnificent, beautiful, stupendous and terrifying. No man-made phenomenon of such tremendous power had ever occurred before. The lighting effects beggared description. The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined. It was that beauty the great poets dream about but describe most poorly and inadequately. Thirty seconds after the explosion came first, the air blast pressing hard against the people and things, to be followed almost immediately by the strong, sustained, awesome roar which warned of doomsday and made us feel that we puny things were blasphemous to dare tamper with the forces heretofore reserved to The Almighty. Words are inadequate tools for the job of acquainting those not present with the physical, mental and psychological effects. It had to be witnessed to be realized."

Said Farrell after the test, “The war is over.”

9. "To Hirohito, with love and kisses, T. F. Farrell."

After the project proved a success, Farrell was installed on the targeting committee. Their guidelines from General Groves were to choose a target that would “most aversely affect the will of the Japanese people to continue the war.” The target “should be military in nature,” containing a major headquarters or a manufacturing center of weapons and supplies. On the morning of the bombing, Farrell scrawled on the front of Fat Man, "To Hirohito, with love and kisses, T. F. Farrell." 

10. After the war, Farrell was appointed chairman of the New York City Housing Authority.

You’re probably thinking Thomas Farrell had done enough by this point. You’re probably right, though Farrell disagreed. After the war, the mayor of New York appointed him chairman of the New York City Housing Authority. Farrell’s work as state Commissioner of Canals and Waterways, and later his leadership at the state Department of Public Works, wasn’t forgotten. Said the mayor at the time, “General Farrell’s appointment foreshadows a speed-up of the Authority’s work and closer relations with the city and the state.” 

11. He wasn’t out of the atom business just yet.

In 1951, Farrell was placed on military leave from the New York City Housing Authority, and assigned to the Atomic Energy Commission. There, he oversaw all work concerning the acquisition of uranium, the operation of processing plants, and construction of new facilities. But his atomic responsibilities didn’t end there. He later joined the planning commission of the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The fair was a “carnival of technological utopianism.” Among its exhibits: “Atomsville, U.S.A.” 

He died on April 11, 1967 at age 75.

Previously on Retrobituaries: Theodore Maiman, inventor of the laser. See all retrobituaries here.

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technology
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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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Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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