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7 Super-Sized (And Somewhat Insane) Soviet Projects

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The Soviet Union decided the best way to show up the West was to build the biggest version of any given object. The following are just seven of the largest examples.

1. A Palace for the People

In 1931, Joseph Stalin ordered that the largest Orthodox Christian cathedral in the world— 335 feet high, the product of 44 years of back-breaking labor by Russian peasants—be dynamited so he could build an enormous "Palace of the People," to celebrate the Communist Party. Stalin wished to replace the church with a new structure taller than the Empire State Building, and capped with a gilded statue of Lenin taller than the Statue of Liberty. But the "Man of Steel's" mad scheme never came to fruition. Although the first phase was completed (the dynamiting was the easy bit), the construction never took place as necessary resources were diverted to fighting World War II. After Stalin died, his successor—Nikita Khrushchev—ordered a large swimming pool built where the cathedral had stood. Old women who remembered the original cathedral could be seen standing at the edge of the swimming pool, praying to forgotten icons. Recently Yury Luzhkov, Moscow's autocratic mayor, tried to make up for Stalin's mess by ordering the construction of a tacky reproduction of the original cathedral using precast concrete. [Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.]

2. Avant-garde Design for a Funkier Parliament

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Designed by Vladimir Tatlin (1885"“1953) in 1920, the Monument to the Third International was a gigantic spiraling iron structure intended to house the new Soviet government. Taller than the Eiffel Tower (and the yet-to-be constructed Empire State Building) at more than 1,300 feet, this curving, funnel-shaped structure was meant to encase three successively smaller assembly areas rotating on industrial bearings at different speeds, faster or slower according to their importance. Rotating once a year in the lowest level was a giant cube for delegates attending the Communist International from all over the world. A smaller pyramid, rotating once a month above it, would house the Communist Party's executives. The third level—a sphere rotating once daily—would house communications technology to spread propaganda, including a telegraph office, radio station, and movie screen. Unfortunately the giant structure would have required more iron than the entire Soviet Union produced in a year, and was never built. [Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.]

3. Magnitogorsk

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Whether it was for guns, tanks, ships, railroads, or bridges, Stalin, whose name means "Man of Steel," knew he needed one thing above all else for his 1920s Soviet Union: steel. He also knew that to the east, in the southern Ural Mountains, there was a unique geologic oddity named Magnitka—an entire mountain of pure iron ore, the key ingredient for steel. In 1929, Stalin decreed that a city, "Magnitogorsk" (see what he did there?), be built from scratch around said mountain to mine the ore and turn it into steel. So began one of the largest construction projects ever undertaken. With expertise provided by Communist sympathizers from the West, a ready-made city for 450,000 inhabitants was constructed in about five years. Of course, Stalin saved on labor costs by having the heavy lifting done by political prisoners. In fact, 30,000 people died in the effort. Steel production began in 1934, but shortly after World War II the city's economy collapsed. [Photo courtesy of Katardat.org.]

4. The Baltic"“White Sea Canal

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Ever the optimist, this time Stalin wanted to connect the Baltic Sea, with its key port of Leningrad, to the White Sea's port of Archangelsk. The idea was that he could move the Soviet navy fleets back and forth. So Stalin had more political prisoners sent to work on the canal—there was a seemingly endless supply from the gulags—and after a few brutal years it was completed in 1933. Disease, poor nutrition, and brutal conditions took a huge toll, though, with as many as 250,000 of the slave laborers dead by the end of it. The icing on the cake? The canal was completely useless when finished. For most of its length it was too shallow to admit anything larger than a small barge. Later a book of propaganda detailing the biographies of "heroic" workers and engineers, intended for distribution in capitalist countries, had to be recalled because in the downtime Stalin had ordered all the main characters shot. [Photo courtesy of Open Society Archives.]

5. The World's Largest Hydrofoil

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The world's largest hydrofoil wasn't really a hydrofoil at all. In fact, it was one of a series of unique machines called "ground effect" vehicles built by the Soviet Union beginning in the 1960s. The Soviets had a monopoly on this fascinating technology, relying on a little-known principle of physics—the "ground effect"—in which a dense cushion of air hugging the ground can provide more lift to a vehicle than air at higher altitudes. Hovering about 3"“12 feet above the ground, these vehicles resemble Luke Skywalker's levitating craft from Star Wars, and are far more fuel-efficient than airplanes, helicopters, hydrofoils, or cars. And at 58 feet, the largest of these, the "Caspian Sea Monster" was given its distinctive name after CIA analysts saw it at the Caspian port of Baku in photos taken by spy satellites. The craft traveled at speeds of up to 240 mph, had a swiveling nose cone for cargo loading, and could carry up to as many as 150 passengers. [Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.]

6. The World's Largest Hydrogen Bomb

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Truth is always stranger than fiction, so it's no wonder that Stanley Kubrick's absurd comedy Dr. Strangelove is actually premised on fact. The strange truth here was that Nikita Khrushchev and company had actually been plotting to build a "doomsday" device. The plan called for a large cargo ship anchored off the Soviet Union's east coast to be loaded with hundreds of hydrogen bombs. If at any point the radiation detectors aboard the ship measured a certain amount of atmospheric radiation, indicating that the Soviet Union had been attacked, the bombs would detonate. Soviet scientists persuaded Khrushchev to drop this mad scheme. He did, however, order the construction of the world's largest nuclear bomb in 1961, the so-called "Czar Bomba" ("King of Bombs"), which weighed in at about 100 megatons—equivalent to 100 million tons of TNT. The largest nuclear test involved a smaller version of "Czar Bomba" that measured somewhere between 50 and 57 megatons—the Soviets weren't sure themselves.

7. World's Largest Icebreaker, the Yamal

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Confronted with the world's largest piece of ice—the Arctic Ocean—the Soviets had no intention of letting nature stand in their way. So, they came up with a simple solution: the world's largest icebreakers. The first included the Lenin and Arktika class of nuclear-powered icebreakers, introduced in 1959 and 1975, respectively. The Arktika ice-breakers had not one but two nuclear reactors, powering 75,000-horsepower engines. None compare with the newest vessel, however—the Yamal—launched in 1993. Also powered by two nuclear reactors, it measures in at 490 feet long, displacing 23,000 tons of water, with a crew of 150 and an armored steel hull 4.8 centimeters thick. Recently reoutfitted for tourist operations, it has 50 luxury cabins, a library, lounge, theater, bar, volleyball court, gymnasium, heated indoor swimming pool, and saunas. A helicopter is stationed on the ship to conduct reconnaissance of ice formations. [Photo courtesy of ikzm-d.de.]

This list was excerpted from Mental Floss Presents: Forbidden Knowledge.

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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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