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That Time the U.S. and Britain Nearly Went to War Over a Pig

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Dan Lewis runs the wildly popular daily newsletter Now I Know (“Learn Something New Every Day, By Email”). To subscribe to his daily email, click here.

The United States and Britain have been adversaries at war twice: the American Revolution and the War of 1812. For years the nations have been close allies. But for a few months in 1859, the two sides were hostile once again, with over 400 American soldiers (and roughly a dozen cannons) facing off against more than 2,000 British troops and five British warships.

The good news: the total casualty count from the war was only one — one pig, that is.

After the War of 1812, most of the Pacific Northwest was jointly occupied by the U.S. and Britain. Over time, the two nations came to an agreement, the Oregon Treaty, that divided the territory at the 49th Parallel, forming the modern border between the state of Washington (U.S.) and the province of British Columbia (Canada). An exception was made for Vancouver Island, which was placed entirely under British control even though it dipped below the 49th Parallel. The Oregon Treaty specifically drew the line of demarcation separating the two as “the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver Island.”

The problem?

The San Juan Islands, pictured, are in the middle of that unnamed “channel,” and create three separate ”middle” channels. For a dozen years after signing the Oregon Treaty, neither side particularly liked the other’s interpretation of which channel was the true divider. The U.S. preferred the Haro Strait, the blue line pictured in the map; the U.K. preferred the Rosario Strait, denoted by the red line. And this question of ownership causes practical problems: The British Hudson Bay Company set up a sheep ranch on San Juan Island while a few dozen Americans settled there as well.

On June 15, 1859 — thirteen years to the day that the two nations signed the Oregon Treaty — an American farmer named Lyman Cutlar noticed a pig, owned by Charles Griffin, an employee of the Hudson Bay Company, eating one of his potato crops. Cutlar considered the pig a trespasser and shot it. Cutlar offered Griffin $10 in compensation; Griffin demanded $100. Cutlar withdrew his offer, now believing he was fully within his rights to shoot the trespasser. Griffin called upon the British authorities to arrest Cutlar. Cutlar and other American settlers, in turn, requested that the American military protect them from the British.

Things quickly spiraled out of hand and, within two months, the forces described above camped on and around San Juan Island, both with strict orders not to fire the first shot. (Opposing troops did, however, toss insults, hoping to coax the other into violating this order.)

Things came to a head when word of the issue reached Washington, D.C., and London. Both sides wished to keep this conflict bloodless, and agreed to jointly occupy San Juan Island peacefully, each with a military base on the island. In 1874, a panel of international arbitrators declared the Haro Strait to be the border, and awarded San Juan Island to the United States; the British closed up their base soon thereafter.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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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]