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The remains of Hitler's bunker via Getty Images

Adolf Hitler’s Last Day Alive

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The remains of Hitler's bunker via Getty Images

In late April 1945, chaos reigned in Berlin. Years of war had turned former superpower Germany into a battleground, and its cities from strongholds into places under siege. The Red Army had completely circled the city, which now called on elderly men, police, and even children to defend it. But though a battle raged on in the streets, the war was already lost. Adolf Hitler’s time was almost up.  

The people of Germany had already taken leave of their Führer. Since a public appearance on his birthday, April 20, he had been disconcertingly absent from the public eye. In reality, he was holed up in a bunker near the Brandenburg Gate in the heart of Berlin, surrounded by his command staff and a few private citizens, including his mistress Eva Braun. 

For weeks, bad news drifted into Hitler's hideaway. As American forces advanced from the west, and the relentless Soviet tanks from the east, Hitler’s generals began to lose their heads. Suspicious of a coup by his closest advisors, Hitler raged and planned and raged again. When he learned that Felix Steiner, one of his SS commanders, had ignored his orders to stage a heroic last stand south of the city, he began to rant and cry, declaring the war lost. Later that day, he consulted with Werner Haase, his private doctor, about the best ways to commit suicide. 

By April 29, the situation had taken a turn for the worse. Though Hitler married Eva Braun that morning, people were more interested in discussing suicide than celebrating a wedding. Hitler had learned that Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS, had given the Allies an offer of immediate surrender—an offer they promptly refused. Outraged, Hitler demanded that Himmler—once his close and powerful compatriot—be arrested. Then Hitler heard of the death of Benito Mussolini, his counterpart in Italy. Executed and defiled by an angry mob, the dictator’s end was a powerful warning about what might be in store for the man who had promised his now-devastated country an endless empire. Mussolini’s death set the last 24 hours of life in the bunker into motion. 

April 30, 1945

All times are approximate

1 a.m.: Field Marshal William Keitel reports that the entire Ninth Army is encircled and that reinforcements will not be able to reach Berlin. 

4 a.m.: Major Otto Günsche heads for the bathroom, only to find Dr. Haase and Hitler’s dog handler, Fritz Tornow, feeding cyanide pills to Hitler’s beloved German Shepherd, Blondi. Haase is apparently testing the efficacy of the cyanide pills that Hitler’s former ally Himmler had provided him. The capsule works and the dog dies almost immediately.  

10:30 a.m.: Hitler meets with General Helmuth Weidling, who tells him that the end is near. Russians are attacking the nearby Reichstag. Weidling asks what to do when troops run out of ammunition. Hitler responds that he’ll never surrender Berlin, so Weidling asks for permission to allow his troops to break out of the city as long as their intention never to surrender remains clear.  

2:00 p.m.: Hitler and the women of the bunker—Eva Braun, Traudl Junge, and other secretaries—sit down for lunch. Hitler promises them that he’ll give them vials of cyanide if they wish to use them. He apologizes for being unable to give them a better farewell present.  

3:30 p.m.: Roused by the sound of a loud gunshot, Heinz Linge, who has served as Hitler’s valet for a decade, opens the door to the study. The smell of burnt almonds—a harbinger of cyanide—wafts through the door. Braun and Hitler sit side by side. They are both dead. Braun has apparently taken the cyanide, while Hitler has done the deed with his Walther pistol. 

4:00 p.m.: Linge and the other residents of the bunker wrap the bodies in blankets and carry them upstairs to the garden. As shells fall, they douse the bodies in gas. Joseph Goebbels, minister of propaganda, will kill himself tomorrow. Meanwhile, he holds out a box of matches. The survivors fumble and finally light the corpses on fire. They head down to the bunker as they burn.  

On May 1, Germans who can find time between shells to listen to the radio are greeted with the tones of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung—“The Twilight of the Gods.” Hitler, they are told, has “fallen at his command post in the Reich Chancery fighting to the last breath against Bolshevism and for Germany.” The Führer is dead. 

References: Endgame, 1945: The Missing Final Chapter of World War IIGerman Commanders of World War II; The Bunker; The Day the War Ended; Five Days That Shocked The World; Until the Final Hour: Hitler’s Last SecretaryInside Hitler’s Bunker; BBC News

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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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May 23, 2017
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