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Royal Navy

3 Little Pigs and Their Military Service

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Royal Navy

You hear stories about heroic military dogs, homing pigeons, and even the unique story of Wojtek the military bear, but even lowly pigs have left their mark in wartime. Here are the stories of three of them.

1. Tirpitz, the Swimming German Pig of World War I

Tirpitz was a pig carried on the German warship SMS Dresden in 1914 as a food source. The Dresden was sunk in battle with the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Glasgow off the coast of South America during the Battle of Más a Tierra. Tirpitz managed to escape the sinking ship and swam towards the Glasgow. The crew brought him aboard and adopted him as a mascot, named him after German admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, and awarded him the Iron Cross for bravery.

After a year aboard the Glasgow, Tirpitz was transferred to the Whale Island Gunnery School in Portsmouth. Tirpitz was eventually auctioned off as pork, but in his final act he raised £1,785 for the British Red Cross. His head was mounted and can be seen at the Imperial War Museum in London. Tirpitz's trotters (feet) were made into handles for a carving set that traveled with the Glasgow in World War II, giving Tirpitz the dubious honor of serving aboard the British ship in two wars.

2. Pig 311, the Nuclear Survivor

Getty Images

In 1946, the United States conducted a pair of nuclear weapons tests in Bikini Atoll under the name Operation Crossroads. To test how nuclear explosions would affect ships at sea, 22 ships were moored at different distances from the blast, loaded with guinea pigs, goats, pigs, mice, and rats to test the effects of the blast and fallout on Navy personnel. A third of the animals were killed by either the explosion or by radiation. Most of the others died of radiation sickness over the next few weeks. The animals were secured in their positions, but some of the ships were destroyed in the blast. Recovery crews found a test pig that had survived the destruction of her ship and was found swimming in a nearby lagoon. That was Pig 311.

Pig 311 became famous not only because of her escape from the ship, but because she survived the radioactive fallout that killed most of the other test animals. After three more years with the Navy (as a subject of study), Pig 311, along with another survivor, Goat 315, were given to the Smithsonian National Zoo. Pig 311 was given the opportunity but never produced any offspring. Speculation is that she was rendered sterile by the radiation of the nuclear test. Pig 311 lived at the zoo until her death in 1950.

3. King Neptune, the World War II Fundraiser

Photograph by Eric Crowley.

A pig named Parker Neptune was born on Sherman Boner's farm in southern Illinois in 1942. Don C. Lingle, a Navy recruiter, acquired the pig and renamed him King Neptune. Lingle collaborated with auctioneer L. Oard Sitter to auction the pig for war bonds. The auctioneer dressed the pig in a Navy blanket as a gimmick. Bidders pledged $11,200 in war bonds for various parts of the pig by the time the auction was over—then the buyers donated the pig back to be auctioned off again! It was all in the spirit of supporting the war effort. King Neptune gained local fame through the stunt, and was auctioned off again—for $50,000. And again, for half a million. As word spread, King Neptune was driven from town to town, selling war bonds and escaping the butcher's cleaver every time. He arrived at auction dressed in a Navy blanket, a crown, and jewelry befitting his regal name. At least once, his squeal was auctioned, and a single bristle was sold for $500. The governor of Illinois once bid a million dollars on the pig on behalf of the state. Before the end of World War II, King Neptune had raised $19 million—equivalent to over $200 million today.

In 1946, Lingle saved King Neptune from a planned trip to the slaughterhouse and arranged for him to retire to the farm of Ernest Goddard in Illinois. There he lived until his death of pneumonia in 1950. King Neptune was buried with military honors, and a memorial was erected in his memory.

See also: Ten Pigs We Love and When Pigs Fly.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Stephen Missal
crime
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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]

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