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Hitler's Nephew, Stalin's Daughter and Other Famous Defectors

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Here are four defectors whose stories you won't soon forget.

1. Hitler's Nephew

© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

William Patrick Hitler was born in England to a German father, Alois Hitler, and an Irish mother, Bridget Dowling. When William was still a boy, his father moved back to Germany, but his mother refused to go, raising her son alone in England. Alois kept in touch with the family and so, when his famous Uncle Adolf rose to power, young William moved to Germany in the hopes that he would be given a high-profile job. After hounding him for months, Uncle Adolf agreed to give William a cushy position as long as he renounced his British citizenship and promised never to return home. Sensing something wasn't right, William went back to England and capitalized on his famous family by writing an article for Look Magazine called, “Why I Hate My Uncle."

The popularity of the story gave William and his mother (pictured above) the opportunity to travel to America as part of a lecture tour. While there, World War II broke out, and the two were essentially stranded in the United States.

Hoping to do his part in the war effort, Hitler asked for and received special permission from President Roosevelt to enlist in the U.S. Navy in 1944.

According to a newspaper story printed at the time, when he introduced himself at the draft office, the recruiter thought he was joking and responded with, “Glad to see you, Hitler. My name’s Hess.” a reference to Nazi leader Rudolf Hess.

William Hitler served valiantly in the war and received an honorable discharge in 1947. Then, he simply disappeared.

In 1998, author David Gardner went looking for Hitler’s lost nephew and found that, after the war, William and his mother had become U.S. citizens and changed their name to Stuart-Houston. William started a successful medical laboratory business, got married, moved to Long Island, had four boys, and died in 1987. At one point during the interview, William's wife claimed that her sons made a pact never to have children—so the Hitler bloodline would end with them. The oldest son, Alexander Adolf Stuart-Houston, has denied that such a pact exists, though the men never married or had children.

2. The Littlest Defector

When the Polovchak family moved to Chicago from Soviet-controlled Ukraine in January 1980, they hoped to find the American Dream. However, it wasn't meant to be. After less than six months, the family decided to move back home. Well, most of the family did anyway. Young 17-year old Natalia and her 12-year old brother Walter were determined to stay in America. So just days before they were to board a plane, the siblings, with the help of family living in Chicago, filed for religious asylum, claiming they faced religious persecution in the Soviet Union due to their Baptist upbringing.

Because of Natalia’s age, her parents couldn't legally make her come home. However, because Walter was still a minor, his parents asked for assistance from the Chicago Police Department to have their son returned to their custody. Under advisement from both the U.S. State Department and Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Chicago PD instead placed Walter in the care of the State of Illinois as a minor in need of supervision.

With their hands tied in the U.S., the rest of the Polovchak family went home without him, but they continued to fight for their son’s return through political and legal channels. Before long, everyone from the Soviet Embassy, the FBI, the KGB, and the ACLU were embroiled in the controversial court cases that followed.

Sympathy for Walter caused the U.S. Government to intentionally drag its feet, stretching these court procedures out for six years in order to give Walter enough time to become a legal adult and decide for himself where he would like to stay. He was sworn in as an American citizen just a few days after his 18th birthday and still lives here today.

3. Stalin's Daughter

Svetlana Alliluyeva was born in 1926 to Nadezhda Alliluyeva and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. She was the youngest of Stalin’s three children and his only daughter. Her mother died under suspicious circumstances when Svetlana was only six years old, leaving her in the care of nannies for much of her childhood, and only receiving occasional visits from her busy father.

While the two were never close, Stalin still had a forceful hand in his daughter’s life, especially her love life. Although it wasn’t the official reason, it’s believed that Svetlana’s first love was sent into exile because of their relationship. She later married another man, but even after the couple had a son and named him after Stalin, the Premier refused to meet his son-in-law.

She married again two years later, to Yuri Zhadanov, son of Stalin’s second-in-command, Andrei Zhdanov, but the marriage didn’t last. She met her next love, Brajesh Singh, in 1963, 10 years after her father's death. Although the two were never allowed to marry, they often referred to each other as husband and wife. Singh died three years later due to complications from various ailments, and Alliluyeva was allowed to take Singh’s ashes to his family in New Delhi, India. With her first taste of freedom, Svetlana went to the United States Embassy and asked for political asylum.

After moving to America, she wrote her autobiography, Twenty Letters to a Friend, denouncing her father’s regime and the Communist way of life. While here, she married William Wesley Peters, a top apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright, and the couple had a daughter. After this marriage also ended in divorce, Svetlana and her daughter moved to the UK, then later back to the Soviet Union, where they were both, surprisingly, granted citizenship. However, they left again and bounced between the UK and the US throughout the 1980s and 90s.

She lived in obscurity until 2007, when filmmaker Lana Parshina tracked her down to record a series of interviews, resulting in the 2008 film, Svetlana About Svetlana. As of 2010, Joseph Stalin’s only daughter lives in a retirement home in southern Wisconsin.

4. The Reluctant Communist

In 1965, to avoid deployment to Vietnam, U.S. Army Sergeant Charles Jenkins, stationed in South Korea, surrendered to a bewildered North Korean soldier. Jenkins thought he'd be sent to Russia and then returned to America as a part of a prisoner exchange, but instead, North Korea reported that he had asked for political asylum. In response, the U.S. branded him a traitor and issued a warrant for his arrest. With no way to communicate with the outside world to plead his case, Jenkins had little choice but to stay in North Korea.

Unlike other countries, North Korea did not provide an easy life for defectors. Jenkins was quarantined in a one-room house with other American defectors, where they received political indoctrination under constant threat of violence. In 1972, they were moved to separate homes, but life didn't get much better. Jenkins was assigned professions and given a small ration of food, but otherwise eked out an existence like everyone else. The violence continued as well, most notably when North Korean doctors held Jenkins down and, without anesthetic, removed a U.S. Army tattoo from his arm with a pair of scissors.

Hitomi Soga, a Japanese woman, was 21 years old when she met Jenkins in 1980. Hitomi had been kidnapped by North Korean agents to teach spies Japanese, and was later “given” to Jenkins as a wife to prevent him from “dirtying” the Korean bloodline. While their marriage was arranged - and despite a 20-year age difference – the two actually fell in love and had two daughters. At about the same time, Jenkins and other defectors were ordered to appear in a 20-hour propaganda film, Unsung Heroes, acting as villainous U.S. military leaders. When American intelligence acquired the film, it was the first time they could confirm that Jenkins was still alive.

Figuring they would never be allowed to leave, the Jenkins family made the best of their situation, suffering through the country's most difficult times in the 1980s and 90s. However, in 2002, their luck changed when North Korea admitted that Japanese civilians, like Hitomi, had been abducted. To make amends, abductees and their families were allowed to return to Japan. Jenkins was resistant – he feared North Korea was testing his loyalty, and worried about the American arrest warrant – but he was finally convinced to leave with his family in 2004. Once in Japan, Jenkins offered to have his marriage to Hitomi dissolved, figuring she had only stayed with him before because she had no choice. She refused.

To clear his conscience, on September 11, 2004, Jenkins, at the age of 64, put on his old Army uniform, and reported for duty at Camp Zama, a U.S. Army base near Tokyo. His 40-year absence marked the longest any American deserter had ever gone before turning himself in. Jenkins pleaded guilty to charges of desertion and aiding the enemy, but denied making disloyal statements (those charges were later dropped). Although he could have received life in prison, he was sentenced to 30 days in the brig and a dishonorable discharge, though he was released five days early for good behavior.

In his memoir, The Reluctant Communist, Jenkins regrets that he let his country, his family, and himself down in 1965. Some feel his 40 years of hell in North Korea were punishment enough, while others say he’s still a traitor. Although he has made a happy life with his wife and children, he’ll be the first to say that walking to North Korea was the biggest mistake he ever made.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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