CLOSE
Original image
Chess for the Wounded Postal Chess Recorder. 1946. Collection of the World Chess Hall of Fame. Image courtesy of the World Chess Hall of Fame

Postal Chess Set for Wounded WWII Vets

Original image
Chess for the Wounded Postal Chess Recorder. 1946. Collection of the World Chess Hall of Fame. Image courtesy of the World Chess Hall of Fame

Chess may seem like a placid pursuit, but it has plenty to do with combat. Of course, the game itself is a virtual portrayal of war complete with castles, knights, and royalty. But during World War II, it also took on new significance for wounded and captured soldiers, who were often faced with long hours of monotony and intellectual starvation.

The Geneva Conventions are best known today for their definitions of war crimes, but in 1929, the third convention helped lay out how to treat prisoners of war. The rules governed not just the physical conditions of POWs but their intellectual and moral needs, requiring freedom of religion, proper medical treatment, and respect based on military rank. The convention also contained a provision on recreation, which stated that "so far as possible belligerents shall encourage intellectual diversions and sports organized by prisoners of war."

War relief organizations took that provision seriously—and for many prisoners of war during World War II, the regulation translated into a rousing game of chess. The intellectual pursuit didn't take much room, could be played over the course of time, and was relatively quiet, making it the perfect pursuit for prisons and hospitals filled with people whose range of motion was limited. Throughout the war, chess was championed by organizations like the International Red Cross, which sent chess sets to prisoners in care packages. Soon, chess tournaments could be found in POW camps around the world.

But POWs weren't the only war casualties who loved chess. In 1945, in response to the influx of wounded veterans at the war's end, the United States Chess Federation partnered with the magazine Chess Review to bring chess to injured vets, too. The resulting organization, Chess for the Wounded, didn't just get chess sets into hospitals—it brought some of the biggest names in chess directly to players. Chess greats (many of them women who had not been drafted into service) headed to players' hospital bedsides to challenge them. Among them were Gisela Gresser, the first American woman chess master and one of the greatest players of all time, and several other U.S. women's champions who volunteered.

The portable chess board you see above was given to a player by Herbert H. Holland, a U.S. Department of Agriculture worker, attorney, and avid chess player. Holland knew what it was like to be bored and incapacitated in a hospital bed: During World War I, he entered a diabetic coma and spent a total of nearly four years in hospitals recuperating. During those hours, Holland, a self-taught chess player, amused himself by playing chess with his fellow patients—a pastime that eased his boredom and made the long hours more bearable.

Holland never forgot how chess changed his life. During World War II, he collected a total of 1150 chess sets for prisoners of war. He eventually became the head of Chess for the Wounded. Though many players in the program used traditional chess sets, some used postal sets like the one you see above. The cards on the left were used to help players record the moves of several players at once as they mailed their games back and forth to other wounded opponents. Today, it's in the collection of the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis—a testament to the game's little-known connection to the modern horrors of war.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
arrow
technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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
arrow
Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
Original image
iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
arrow
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES