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Kurt Vonnegut and the Day Scientists Went on Strike

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When the mechanics of war are set into motion, we tend to tell ourselves there isn't much we can do. This is on a practical level, mind you, not a moral or spiritual one. The overwhelming majority of us lack the technical know-how to fully understand these complicated machines of destruction. Like babies watching a pot of water boil over, we can only sit and coo and cry and mess ourselves because I have no idea how to turn the burner off, do you?

But what if the inventors of all these weapons said, "Enough"? That happened in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, when America's scientists proposed a "research stoppage"—a strike.

The Science Action Coordinating Committee, an M.I.T.-based organization backed by 45 professors there, scheduled the strike for March 4, 1969—timed to protest the development of Sentinel ABM, a nation-wide ballistic missile defense system aimed to protect against Chinese attacks. They argued that the system would intensify the nuclear arms race and waste a disgusting amount of money. The Committee also maintained the broader goal of fighting against the "diversion of American Science to military means" while working to prevent the flow of Defense Department money into private institutions. Their thinking was simple: If you're going to use our research to hurt people, we'll stop researching.

The plan was publicly announced at a February meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers in New York. There, a 47-year-old Kurt Vonnegut delivered a speech titled "The Virtuous Physicist." While the novelist had a few well-received books to his name, he was a relative unknown at the time. In their write-up of the meeting, the New York Times merely described him as "a science fiction writer." (The next month, the Times would publish a rave review of his newest novel, Slaughterhouse Five, on the front page of their books section, instantly making Vonnegut a household name.)

"What does a humanistic physicist do?" Vonnegut asked the crowd of scientists, many of whom were wearing "STOP ABM" buttons. "Why, he watches people, listens to them, thinks about them, wishes them and their planet well. He wouldn’t knowingly hurt people. He wouldn’t knowingly help politicians or soldiers hurt people. If he comes across a technique that would obviously hurt people, he keeps it to himself. He knows that a scientist can be an accessory to murder most foul. That’s simple enough, surely."

When asked at a press conference afterwards what he meant by a "virtuous physicist," Vonnegut briskly replied, "One who declines to work on weapons.”

The strike was planned to occur at 28 universities, although it's unclear how comprehensive the research stoppage was. At the University of Washington, some "200 faculty members took part." However, at Harvard, the day was mired by a "good deal of confusion." The Crimson reported that scientists there "balked at the words 'protest' and 'strike,'" and chose to view the day more as a "religious holiday" than a labor dispute. The movement didn't apply to them, they figured, because Harvard didn't conduct classified government research on campus.

The Crimson had a conservative view of the strike's effectiveness: "If the only outcome of today's research stoppage is an increased willingness on the part of scientists to use the word 'protest,' the stoppage will still have been a success."

The Science Action Coordinating Committee didn't last long after the March 4 strike, and records of their existence seem to stop in 1969. Lord knows they were unable to prevent government money from invading private scientific research.

Still, they could claim a small victory. Due to wide-ranging public unrest of which they were a very vocal part, the Nixon administration suspended and then subsequently cancelled the Sentinel ABM defense system. However, it was soon replaced with the Safeguard ABM defense system, a colossal waste of money which was shut down after just 24 hours of operation. America's enemies, it seemed, could bypass Safeguard simply by using more warheads and more missiles.

As a certain science fiction writer would say, "So it goes."

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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