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In 1914, Hitler Was Arrested for Dodging the Austrian Draft

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January 18, 1914: Hitler Arrested for Dodging Austrian Draft

On the cold afternoon of January 18, 1914, a German police detective paid a visit to a dingy, poorly heated apartment in Munich, where he surprised and apprehended one Adolf Hietler—Austrian, artist, age 24—who had fled the Hapsburg realm in May 1913 to avoid military service. Germany and Austria-Hungary had an agreement to repatriate draft dodgers, so Hitler (as he chose to spell his name) was arrested and taken to the Austrian consulate, where he was ordered to report to his hometown of Linz, Austria, for a fitness exam.

A moody, mercurial young man with a fanatical opposition to regular work habits, Hitler was determined to avoid the tedium of military drill and barracks life at all costs, and quite willing to lie if that’s what it took. Taking up pen and paper, he turned his rhetorical powers loose in a persuasive (if not entirely consistent) letter to the Austrian officials in charge of his fate, pleading poverty, ignorance, and extenuating circumstances.

Poverty was front and center: “The main reason making it impossible for me to honor your summons is that it has not been possible for me to muster the sum necessary for such a journey at such short notice…” With an eye on his audience, Hitler cleverly played on the economic grievances of middle class bureaucrats: “While it is true that I am earning my keep as a painter, I do so only since I am entirely without assets (my father was a government official)… Therefore my earnings are extremely modest, just sufficient for subsistence purposes.” Hitler also noted that he had been unaware that he was supposed to register for military service in 1909.

Beyond the obvious self-contradiction—he didn’t register because he was too poor, and also didn’t know he had to—Hitler’s letter was one long lie from top to bottom. First of all he wasn’t actually poor, having inherited legacies from both his parents as well as an aunt; he just chose to live in a dingy apartment because he was cheap and didn’t want to waste his time on a steady job. He also knew he was required to register for service—it would have been impossible not to know.

Most importantly, the real reason he wanted to avoid conscription (in addition to his general dislike of boring responsibility) was the multiethnic character of the Hapsburg army: Hitler despised Slavs and Jews and wasn’t too fond of Hungarians, Italians, or Romanians, all of whom were to be found in the armed forces of the patchwork empire. Indeed, Hitler embraced the radical “Pan-German” ideology espoused by anti-Semitic demagogues like Georg Ritter von Schönerer, who called for the German-speaking part of Austria to secede and join the German Reich of Wilhelm II.

In the end it was all moot anyway: In February 1914, he was finally judged unfit for military service due to his gaunt physique (a legacy of his real days of poverty in Vienna) which rendered him “incapable of bearing arms.” Thus the aspiring artist was free to go back to his old, irregular habits—whiling away the days painting Munich street scenes, sketching plans for buildings, perusing secondhand newspapers in cafes, daydreaming, reading late into the night by a kerosene lamp, searching for a purpose.

Erik Sass is covering the events of World War I 100 years later. See the previous installment or all entries

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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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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