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Four Pieces of Land Not Worth Fighting Over (But That Never Stopped Anyone)

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The Falkland Islands

Anybody who's seen Wag the Dog knows that the best way to distract the public from incompetent leadership is with a war. That was the philosophy that General Leopoldo Galtieri of Argentina took in 1982. His military junta had left Argentina in economic crisis and the people were ready to rebel. So he decided to bring everyone together by attacking, of all countries, Britain. He decided that it was time to occupy the Falkland Islands, a rocky crop of islands off the Argentine coast that, depending on who you asked, belonged to either the Argentines or the British. The islands had once provided a strategic spot for naval bases for various European countries, but Argentina had always figured the islands belonged to them after they declared independence in 1816. The British, meanwhile, took them back in 1833 and never relinquished control. The issue even came up in the UN in 1945, but it was never resolved, leaving the territory in ambiguous hands. However, the Argentines always felt a good deal of pride about their "control" of the islands (which, by this point, had little value), even stating it in the National Constitution.
Playing off these feelings, the Galtieri junta hired a group of scrap metal workers to raise an Argentine flag on the island of South Georgia. This led to a military invasion on April 2, ready for a quick takeover and subsequent celebratory parade. The Argentines had a fatal error in their plan, though; they never expected the British to actually care. But care they fighting in falkland.jpgdid, to the tune of a full-scale counter-force. The resulting battles left more than 900 soldiers dead, 649 of them Argentine. The fiasco of the "Dirty War" led to the military government being pushed out of Argentina. Meanwhile, the British celebration over the victory helped Margaret Thatcher get reelected in 1983 and partially inspired Pink Floyd's album The Final Cut.

Hans Island

hans island.jpgHans Island is a barren island so small a person could run across it in a few minutes, if there were any people on it to do the running. But it's become the center of a bitter dispute over ownership of land in the Arctic. Situated in the Kennedy Strait, it was a sticking point in 1972 negotiations over maritime boundaries between Canada and Denmark, so both countries decided to just forget about it. Then, in 1983, as the two countries were again discussing land in the Arctic, a Canadian newspaper reported that a Canadian petroleum company was doing research on Hans Island unbeknownst to both governments. This reportedly prompted the Danish minister to helicopter over to Hans Island, where he left a bottle of cognac and a flag that said "Welcome to the Danish Island."
The issue was pretty much buried until 2004, when a Canadian newspaper printed an article about Canada's plan to control all land in the North, with a brief mention of Danish warships being sent to Hans Island. The Canadians seized on this, blaming the government 0_61_arctic_hans_island.jpgfor not having a large enough military budget and not doing enough to control the Arctic waters. Canada sent a military expedition through the waters around Hans, prompting the Danes to assert that Hans Island was theirs and only theirs. The conflict has taken on more of a cultural role, prompting a series of dueling ads on Google and a lampoon Hans Island Liberation Front. Most recently, satellite imaging allowed the governments to map out the border, when they found that Hans was split right down the middle between the two countries.

A Strip of Mud in Oxfordshire, England

When Ian Fleming penned the first James Bond novel, he had no idea the very land he sat on would later be the center of one of Britain's most expensive land disputes. He probably just complained about the mud. The whole conflict started decades later, when Victor Bingham, who lived in Kiln Cottage, started chopping down trees on a 5-foot wide strip of land bordering the Fleming family's Nettlebed Estate. The Flemings claimed the trees were on their land and got a court injunction to stop Bingham. But Bingham wasn't just any neighbor- he was a member of the noble Lucan line, famous for the disappearance of Lord Lucan. In his aristocratic pride, he continued chopping down the trees, prompting the Fleming family to bring the issue to court. Finally, in 2005, a judge ruled in favor of the Flemings, ending a case that had legal fees totaling $24 thousand. Bingham vows that he'll continue fighting, though, saying that any profits he makes from selling Kiln Cottage will finance his appeal.

Gran Chaco

200px-GranChacoApproximate.jpgThe Gran Chaco is a dry region between Bolivia and Paraguay where the temperatures are hot, the people are few and the insects are diseased. But for Paraguay, the land represented the last chance for glory. Even though the region was technically under Bolivian control, Paraguay saw fit to use it to grow crops. Then, the discovery of oil in the Andes prompted many to assume there was oil in the Gran Chaco, so Bolivian president Daniel Salamanca sent in troops in 1932 to take back the region. He hadn't anticipated how determined the Paraguayans would be, though. They fought a brutal guerrilla war, whipping up national support for the war and getting military help from Argentina. Bolivia, meanwhile, sent a half-interested army of indigenous settlers who were more interested in not dying of malaria than in protecting the desert. Three years later, a ceasefire was reached, giving Paraguay control of most of the region. Meanwhile, about 100,000 soldiers had been killed and both countries were put in economic turmoil. And as if that weren't bad enough, it turns out there wasn't oil in the region after all.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]