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A Cold-War Mailbox for a Missile

Smithsonian Institution, National Postal Museum

This mailbox may look ho-hum, but when it was strapped to a missile and fired from a submarine on June 8, 1959, the only hum was that of a Regulus I missile hurtling a hundred miles with important letters in tow. That’s right—this missile was the first (and last) of an ambitious, abandoned plan to send mail across the U.S. using Cold War-era weaponry.

That weaponry wasn’t exactly in short supply in 1959. That year, despite Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to the United States, East and West were still in a tense stalemate. On both sides of the Iron Curtain, tons of nuclear weapons were produced, and each side had a vested interest in showing just how terrifying its arsenal could be.

Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield, who helped Dwight D. Eisenhower win the presidency, was steeped in postwar American exceptionalism. It’s no wonder, then, that he dreamed of helping the country’s abundant nuclear technology go postal. Inspired by stories of the accuracy of the United States’ new missiles, Summerfield dreamed up a way for the Post Office and the Department of Defense to collaborate to make the mail even more efficient. Why not use the fast, targeted missiles being developed by the U.S. military to deliver mail?

Summerfield’s idea wasn’t exactly new—people had been experimenting with mail delivery via rocket for decades. In 1936, an experimental rocket-powered glider delivered mail from Greenwood Lake, New York to Hewitt, New Jersey in the first successful American attempt, and the idea was repeated in Germany and other countries through World War II. And just months before this mailbox made its fateful mission, naval officers had shown off the capacities of their new guided missiles by loading them with letters.

New or not, Summerfield was determined to make an official attempt to prove that missile mail was viable. At his suggestion, a grandiose experiment was undertaken by the Post Office Department, as it was then known, and the U.S. Navy.

Two special metal mailboxes were designed to hold a total of 3000 letters and be strapped onto the side of the Regulus I missile, a formidable weapon and the United States’ first nuclear deterrent to be entirely sea-based. The 42-foot-long missile weighed about seven tons and was designed to be guided and shot from submarines.

On the assigned day, the mailboxes were stuffed with 3000 identical letters from Summerfield to a slew of dignitaries, including the president, his cabinet, each member of Congress and members of the Supreme Court. The missile was fired from the USS Barbero, one of the subs assigned to patrol the Pacific and Atlantic and threaten Soviet targets, while it was off the coast of Florida. Twenty-two minutes later, it landed at the Naval Auxiliary Air Station in Mayport, Florida, about 100 miles away [PDF].

The letters were given special postmarks, the formerly secret experiment was publicized, and missile mail was declared a success—not least because it not-so-subtly suggested that messing around with the United States’ hyperaccurate guided missile system wasn’t wise.

“Before man reaches the moon,” Summerfield gloated, “mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to England, to India, or Australia by guided missiles.” But he spoke too soon—apparently no serious consideration was ever given to his idea, and by the time his successor took office the idea was dead in the water. Today, one of the 11x11.5-inch mailboxes sits in the collection of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C., a reminder of the first and only time the United States used guided missile to deliver mail … and a message.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
Original image
iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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