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When Hell Froze Over

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How the Hells Angels Conquered Canada

Canadians don't appear to be scared of anything. They don't carry guns, they don't lock their front doors—heck, they probably even allow their kids play outside after dark. But our northern neighbors aren't exactly frolicking around in a crime-free world the way the media might have you believe. In fact, during the past 30 years, Canada has been terrorized by an influx of biker gangs that act less like hog-riding hooligans and more like Corleone-worthy mafia men.
In all fairness, this new wave of Canadian crime is fueled by an unmistakably American export. Motorcycle gangs in the United States—at least these days—are often romanticized in the Kerouac tradition of life on the open road or confused as clubs of harmless motorcycle enthusiasts. Groups such as the Hells Angels don't make headlines much these days. As such, they seem like shadows of an age long past. And even though American motorcycle gangs are still alive and well today (and most of them are still up to no good), they're hardly the national threat they are in Canada. There, they've taken center stage, living up to their intimidating image with intermittent rashes of shootings, knifings, and even bombings.

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The War of Northern Aggression
In the late 1970s, the Hells Angels were thriving in the States under the leadership of Sonny Barger, a founding member of the Angels' original chapter in Fontana, Calif., and arguably the most famous Hells Angel in history. The group was reported to be deeply involved in drug smuggling, prostitution, and extortion, and Barger saw opportunity for the Angels in Montreal, where the local gangs were less organized and local authorities less prepared to resist the group's presence. So, in 1977, Barger established the first Canadian chapter of the Hells Angels in Montreal. Almost immediately, they began muscling their way to supremacy, reorganizing the country's homegrown biker gangs into well-disciplined bands of killers.
But dominating the biker scene wasn't always easy. In many regions—specifically Québec—the Hells Angels had to fight turf wars with rival gangs such as the Outlaws and Bandidos. That's when things started getting bloody, and that's when Yves "Apache" Trudeau came into the picture. One of the original Canadian Hells Angels, Trudeau was a notorious drug addict and psychopath. In his quest for Angel dominance, Trudeau was rumored to single-handedly have killed 43 people and to have played a part in the murder of 40 others. By 1985, more than 100 people had died as a result of biker-gang violence.
After that, Trudeau became the face of les Hells, as the Angels were known in French Canada. But during the latter half of the 1980s, the group began turning on itself. Still under Trudeau's leadership, various chapters of Angels started vying for power in certain areas and fighting to control the spoils of crime. In one instance, five Angels were murdered by members of a rival chapter, their bodies dumped in the St. Lawrence River. The killers had hoped to murder Trudeau as well, but he escaped. Seeking sanctuary, Trudeau did the unthinkable and turned to the police, instigating one of the biggest biker busts in Canadian history. In exchange for a reduced sentence, Trudeau sent 50 of his fellow Angels down the river.
In the aftermath of Trudeau's arrest, only two of Québec's five chapters remained. Police thought the Hells Angels were finished, but they were wrong. It was only a matter of time before a new leader emerged on the biker scene. This time, it was Maurice Boucher, better known as "Mom" (because he liked to make breakfast for his fellow Angels).
Boucher expanded the Hells Angels presence in Canada even further. Looking to smuggle huge drug shipments into North America, local chapters of the Angels infiltrated major ports in Vancouver, Montreal, and Halifax. By 2000, Boucher's drug network in Montreal was purportedly trafficking more than $100 million a year in cocaine, hashish, and marijuana (that's according to the gang's own computer records, by the way). But with expansion came more territorial warfare "¦ and more violence. Between 1994 and 2001, another 165 people died as a result of motorcycle-gang violence.

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Canadian Crackdown
Throughout the 1980s and much of the 1990s, the growth of biker crime in Canada caught police officials completely off guard. Traditionally, authorities had been willing to let criminals do their own thing as long as they didn't hurt the general population. But with "Mom" Boucher at the helm, it became clear that biker-gang violence wasn't going to be limited to back-alley brawls and bar fights.
The reality of the situation quickly came to light in 1995 after a car bomb (linked to a motorcycle gang) tragically killed an 11-year-old boy in Québec. Then, in 1997, Boucher was charged with murdering two prison guards, and one of his henchmen shot a journalist six times in the back. Finally, after police found a hit list that included the names of judges, prosecutors, and politicians, it became clear the Hells Angels were at war with the state.
Panicked, the government launched a massive crackdown. Canadian authorities enacted anti-gang laws, doubled police-force budgets, and paid informants were assigned to infiltrate the Hells Angels. Then, on March 28, 2001, the authorities scored a victory. In a massive raid, hundreds of officers arrested 128 members of the Hells Angels, including "Mom" Boucher. The bikers were charged with murder, conspiracy, assault, and drug trafficking, and the Hells Angels were officially declared an organized crime ring. Two and a half years later, all the outlaw bikers were convicted and given sentences ranging from eight to 25 years. Boucher, at the age of 52, received two life sentences.
The effort was a major coup for Canadian police, but it was hardly the final chapter for the Hells Angels. The group was so firmly entrenched in the nation's underbelly that no amount of jail time seemed to affect their ability to recruit new members. The good news is that, these days, biker-gang violence is mostly contained to the underground crime world and doesn't pose an immediate threat to average citizens or tourists. The bad news? The Angels are now more powerful in Canada than in any other country. So, despite all its peace-loving, maple-leaf goodness, the country remains the unlikely new stomping grounds for motorcycle gangs "¦ and their crime.

This story was written by William Marsden and originally ran mental_floss magazine volume 4, issue 6.

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