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The Letters of Last Resort

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Thinkstock

If you have a secret to keep, there's no better place to keep it than in a safe inside another safe in the control room of a nuclear-class submarine deployed deep in the ocean. It takes a truly momentous secret to warrant such treatment—a matter not just of life or death, but of potentially millions of lives or millions of deaths. There are four such safes inside other safes inside submarines, and each one contains an identical hand-written letter by Britain's Prime Minister with instructions on what to do in the event that the country is wiped out by nuclear attack.

The scenario: Britain has been obliterated by nukes. The Prime Minister is known to be dead, an unidentified second government official is dead (this is another secret that each Prime Minister is responsible for: establishing a person to be designated as his alternate nuclear decision-maker in case of his death). The commanders of the submarines with nuclear capabilities open the safes, break the seal on the letters and do as the Prime Minister posthumously commands. There is one of two possible directions inside: either retaliate—and kill millions of innocent, although foreign, civilians—or don't.

Making that weighty hypothetical decision is one of the first tasks performed by every new Prime Minister. If the letters go unused, as they always have, they are destroyed—unread—when the premiership changes hands. Truly unknowable secrets.

Some flaws in the system

A 2008 BBC documentary detailing Britain's nuclear protocol piqued the interest of Ron Rosenbaum, who has written about the potential for a nuclear World War III. He took to Slate to explain exactly why, "with all due respect to our British cousins, this seems, well, insane."

It is not simply the incongruousness of a quaint hand-written letter serving as the ultimate directive for nuclear use that drove Rosenbaum to call the process "profoundly shocking." There is the practical problem of how the sub commander would know whom to aim the missiles at if everyone up on the mainland had already been turned to ash. Effectively establishing with an sufficient level of certainty that everyone back on land had been killed in a nuclear attack seems problematic. Some sources claim the broadcasting, or not, of Radio 4 is the signal of nuclear genocide, but that seems reprehensibly glitchy.

The Paradox of MAD

The purpose of broadcasting a nation's nuclear capabilities is to reap the deterrent benefits of mutually assured destruction (MAD). Hopefully, if you know we could nuke you, it will discourage you from nuking us. But does retaliation in the case of an unstoppable nuclear attack even make moral sense? Introducing the letters into this equation doesn't change the ethics, but it does highlight the paradox. In a conversation with Rosenbaum on This American Life, Ira Glass sums up the problem detailed in the Slate article, saying, "Doesn't it undermine the whole point of having nuclear weapons in the first place to publicize the fact that there's a secret letter that very well might say no, don't retaliate?"

But of course, why would you retaliate? Rosenbaum says it best:

If your nation has been wiped out by a nuclear strike, is there any point in retaliating and killing tens, hundreds of millions of innocent people when the threat to retaliate has already failed?

So then, the doubt implied by a decision to be made is dangerous, but the certainty required for MAD is immoral. Thus, the benefit of the letters—and the benefit of making their existence known—is in allowing civilians to feel at ease with the Schrodinger's Cat situation. It's hard to top Glass' eloquence:

[T]hen the advantage of having this letter with the order locked away in a box inside another box—what it does is that you don't want your enemy to know that you're not going to launch those missiles, but you don't want to think for yourself that you are. So it lets you believe both things. It lets two truths exist at the same time.

So in the case of the Letters of Last Resort, it's not just the unknown information that's important—the act of secrecy itself serves a national purpose.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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