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Quality Time

The Lethal Soviet “Night Witches” of the 588th Night Bomber Unit

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Quality Time

During World War II, American women were put to work; in Russia, women were put to war. In 1941, Operation Barbarossa meant the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi forces, and the Soviets’ foray into an untapped reservoir of strength: female bomber pilots. Though Soviet women were barred from combat at the beginning of the war, a record-breaking aviatrix named Marina Raskova (hailed as the “Soviet Amelia Earhart”) was later called upon by Joseph Stalin to organize a regiment of young female pilots to fight the German invaders, making the Soviet Union the first nation to allow women to fly combat missions.

Primitive Planes

Wikimedia Commons

At its largest, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment was made up of 40 two-person crews, all between the ages of 17 and 26. The women flew repurposed 1920s biplanes, made of canvas-draped plywood, that were previously used mostly for crop dusting. The primitive planes lacked many basic instruments, including radios—navigation was done with a stopwatch and a map. If hit, the flimsy aircrafts would burn up immediately. The pilots did not carry parachutes. The aircrafts were so small that they could only carry two bombs at a time, so the pilots were required to carry out multiple missions per night—sometimes as many as 18.

Earning the Nickname through Fright Flight

Though the planes were slow and obsolete, the resourceful Russians capitalized on the planes’ maneuverability, which allowed them to deftly dodge German bullets. As a stealth technique, the bombers would idle their engines as they approached the target, then glide the rest of the way—leaving only the “whoosh” of their aircrafts in the wind to give them away. The sound reminded German soldiers of a witch’s broomstick, thus dubbing the bombers “Nachthexen,” or “night witches.” The Germans attributed the witches’ incredible stealth to special injections and pills taken to give them “feline-like” night vision. So feared were the mysterious bombers that, supposedly, any German who shot one down was automatically awarded an Iron Cross.

Courtesy of The Image Works; Standing: Nadezhda Vasilyevna Popva

Nadezhda Vasilyevna Popova, one of the first young women to enlist, recalled her inaugural mission, in which two of her friends were fatally shot down. “I was ordered to fly another mission,” she said in a 2003 interview with Russian Life magazine. “It was the best thing to keep me from thinking about it.” She later commented, “Almost every time, we had to sail through a wall of enemy fire.” Once, after narrowly completing a raid, Popova counted 42 bullet holes in her fragile plane.

Not Just 'A Bunch of Girlies'

The “witches” faced harsh opposition on the home front, as well. Despite their harrowing missions and unquestionable bravery, the witches’ abilities were often doubted by their male counterparts. A male general once complained about being sent “a bunch of girlies” instead of soldiers; needless to say, the doubters were soon silenced. Even while allegedly drawing flowers on their planes and coloring their lips with navigation pencil, the women of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment flew roughly 30,000 missions, dropping a total of 23,000 tons of bombs on the invading Nazi armies.

Popova, who passed away earlier this month at the age of 91, marveled at the young pilots’ moxie long after the war’s end. “I sometimes stare into the blackness and close my eyes,” she said in 2010. “I can still imagine myself as a young girl, up there in my little bomber. And I ask myself, ‘Nadia, how did you do it?’”

Sources: The AtlanticThe Vancouver SunThe New York TimesSeize the SkyWikipedia

The primary image is courtesy of Quality Time.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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