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© Robin Esrock

11 Photos of Ukraine's Soviet-Era Nuclear Missile Silo

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© Robin Esrock

It’s 1978. A small, white button protrudes from a control panel. Twenty-four hours a day, an officer monitors it, awaiting a single phone call. When the hotline rings, he places a key into a slot, and turns it clockwise. Punching in an access code, he takes a breath, and pushes the button. In just over half an hour, a missile carrying a payload of ten thermonuclear warheads hits a target in the United States. Each warhead vaporizes an area of 120 square miles, along with every living thing inside it. Thousands of similar missiles crisscross the skies above a forest of mushroom clouds. All it takes is one push of a button, located in a command center 100 feet below the Ukrainian countryside.

In the early '90s, a treaty with the United States ensured Ukraine became a nuke-free nation, and 176 former top-secret nuclear missile silos were demolished—save one. Welcome to the Toolbox of Armageddon.

© Robin Esrock

Located a three-hour drive from Kiev, the Museum of Strategic Missile Troops is a former Soviet nuclear missile base operated by the armed forces of Ukraine. Under the guidance of former officers who worked at the base, visitors are led on a tour explaining how large-scale Soviet nuclear missiles were managed, maintained, tested, guarded, and later dismantled.

© Robin Esrock

There are not many places where you can touch the end of the world. This is the SS-18, with a payload of ten 750-kiloton warheads. Each warhead has the potential for 50 times the destructive impact of Hiroshima. Once launched, the 106-foot missile – nicknamed Satan – could fly through a mushroom cloud and travel over 9000 miles seeking its target. There are still hundreds of SS-18s lurking beneath the Russian countryside, although Russia recently announced plans for their replacement. Some scientists believe that a re-equipped Satan is the ideal missile to destroy an incoming asteroid.

© Robin Esrock

It might look green, but it’s just as evil. The R-12 missile was the first Soviet missile with a nuclear warhead, the world’s first mass-produced ballistic missile, and the thorn that pricked the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cuba was just one of several nuclear near misses. Inside the museum, we learn of several others that took civilization to the very edge. These include a 1983 NATO exercise called Able Archer, which almost triggered a full-blown nuclear war.

© Robin Esrock

Other than several missiles on open display, the countryside location appears innocuous – a few low-rise barracks, a tall radio tower. Massive green transport trucks customized to transport thermonuclear warheads hint at something more sinister.

© Robin Esrock

Command centers were located in blast-resistant silos, buried 12 stories below the ground and protected by a 120-ton concrete cap. Perched on hydraulics, the test-tube shaped silos were designed to be fully operational while the rest of the world exploded above.

© Robin Esrock

A scale model shows how the silo operates. Surrounded by impact-absorbing gravel, the command floor is located on the deepest level. A two-man combat crew would take six-hour shifts, capable of surviving in their subterranean silo for up to 48 days without surfacing.

© Robin Esrock

During the Cold War, any unauthorized visitors to this facility would be shot on sight. A former colonel, now a tour guide, leads us to the thick iron door of the command silo. A serious man who once had his finger on the button, the colonel is relieved that the silo’s modern utilization is one of education, not destruction.

© Robin Esrock

The air is chilled as we walk along a narrow tunnel, alongside heating, air, plumbing and radiation filters. A small, gated elevator transports us to the command floor on the 12th level, accompanied by the loud ringing of a rotary phone, just in case we get stuck.

© Robin Esrock

The command center is as musty and bleak as a tomb. An iron ladder leads below to the claustrophobic living quarters, with two bunks and a toilet. No photos or images of outside life were allowed. Officers had to strap themselves into the chairs at all times, and were monitored by closed-circuit cameras. Any officer showing the slightest mental or moral issue was immediately transferred. Not everyone can follow orders knowing they’d literally end the world.

© Robin Esrock

In the eyes of many Soviet soldiers, mutually assured nuclear annihilation was not so much an “if,” but a “when”. The command silo is crammed, narrow, tight, frigid, sterile, and soul crushing. Officers had to remain on constant alert. Life is so far removed down here you’d want to destroy the planet just to relieve the boredom

© Robin Esrock

Pushing this button in 1978 would have triggered a global nuclear war. After seeing the impact of nuclear bombs in a harrowing Hiroshima and Nagasaki exhibit aboveground, and learning about modern nuclear weapons, I just couldn’t bring myself to push it. Even if the button is unarmed, it felt like holding an empty gun to a baby’s head. Could you pull that trigger?

The most distressing part of visiting this fascinating museum is the knowledge that hundreds of similar silos still exist around the world, with officers on duty, awaiting that phone call, ready to follow orders. Even as Russia and the United States work to reduce their nuclear stockpiles, other countries are actively seeking their own membership in the nuclear club.

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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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