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50 Reasons to Subscribe to mental_floss (#48, Feminism and equality in terrorist recruiting?)

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fanned mags.jpgWith the holidays just a few months away, we're introducing a new feature where we sift through 6 years of print archives and give you a smattering of the best of the _floss. If you dig what you see, subscribe here. Today, we're presenting Eric Furman's piece on a disturbing South Asian terrorist organization, and how the group has welcomed women into the fold.

Crouching Tigresses

Why women are lining up to become part of Sri Lanka's biggest terrorist organization By Eric Furman

269.jpgTerrorist groups take credit for a great many things in today's world—violent uprisings, anarchic revolutions, and suicide bombings, to name a few. But one thing you probably won't find many modern-day terror organizations actively advertising is equality for women. The exception to the rule? The Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka.

During their 30-plus years in existence, the Tigers have incorporated plenty of Tigresses into their ranks. They're known as "Birds of Freedom," and they participate at all levels of the Tigers' cause—from intelligence gathering and public relations to training, fighting, and, yes, suicide bombing. But whether Tiger officials are in the business of opening the doors of opportunity for women or simply stockpiling humans as ammunition, the militarization of women in Sri Lanka has become a troubling—and deadly—trend.

The full story after the jump.

The Force of July
Since Sri Lanka's independence from Britain in 1948, tensions between the Tamil-speaking population (concentrated primarily in the northeast, near Jaffna) and the majority Sinhalese have increased dramatically. When the hostility reached a boiling point in the mid-1970s, The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) emerged as a revolutionary group hell-bent on gaining autonomy for the Tamils.

The Tigers' first act of military rebellion was the assassination of Jaffna's mayor in 1975. But from there, the LTTE downgraded the intensity of its campaign to mostly picking on policemen and other state agents. That is, until July 1983, when Tamil guerrillas—citing Sinhalese attacks—killed 13 Sri Lankan army soldiers, sparking full-blown warfare. The Sinhalese retaliated by forming mobs against the Tamils, resulting in several hundred deaths. While devastating, the event—now known as Black July—only served to rally young Tamils behind the LTTE cause. Four years later, the LTTE was strong enough to wrestle the city of Jaffna away from the Sinhalese. India, which had been closely monitoring the sociopolitical climate of its island neighbor, decided it was time to intervene. Now faced with two overwhelming enemies, the LTTE saw only one way to fight back—by bringing in the "Birds of Freedom."

Flocking Together
The two-pronged fight against the Sri Lankan government and the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) taught the Tiger leadership a quick lesson: Women could astronomically increase their troop count and keep them in the game. Plus, Tamil women found easy motivation for signing up. "The Indian invasion was a watershed," offered Adele Ann Balasingham, author of Women Fighters of Liberation Tigers. "The Indian army was brutal and male chauvinist. The rapes and molesting made a bitter impact."
It was a double-liberation ideology. Not only did joining the LTTE mean women could gain equal footing in the trenches fighting for a liberated Tamil state, it also meant breaking free from longstanding and oppressive cultural norms. Even today, that joint appeal has kept women joining the Birds of Freedom in droves.

The Fade to Black
Since their inclusion in the 1980s, LTTE women have been trained for combat just like men. They are assigned to the same forward military positions and administrative staff positions as men. They make up the ground forces and the sea forces, just as men do. And sadly, the Birds of Freedom are dying in large numbers, just like the men. In fact, recent documents suggest that, of the 17,000 total Tamil Tiger combat deaths since 1985, at least 4,000 were women.
But LTTE women have become indispensable operators in an even more powerful, more insidious weapon—the elite suicide bomber forces known as the Black Tigers. The LTTE, it seems, pioneered the modern-day suicide bomber. And in 1987, the organization established a specialized squad of Black Tigers, whose sole purpose was to initiate suicide bomb missions against political, economic, and social targets.
To do this, the LTTE became the first to use concealed vest bombs. Unfortunately, this made women ideally suited for the task. Precisely because they were women, and because the vests allowed them to cross borders "empty-handed," they could easily and inconspicuously infiltrate enemy territories.
Between 1980 and 2000, the Black Tigers carried out a reported 186 successful suicide missions, easily outpacing terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas during the same period. (Horrifically, both of those organizations have since embraced the concealed-vest method.) Of those 186 bombings, more than 100 were performed by women. In fact, the 1991 LTTE-led murder of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was carried out by a female suicide bomber.
Sadly, the women of the LTTE have been so "successful" in their quest for equality that they've motivated their counterparts in battle—the Sri Lankan armed forces—to offer the same military opportunities to women of the Sinhalese majority. According to some military experts, there may now be as many as 5,000 women (including 500 officers) in the 100,000-strong Sri Lankan army.

An Equal-Opportunity Problem
So, can we really give the LTTE—which has been listed as a terrorist organization by 32 countries, including the United States—credit for championing equal rights for Sri Lankan women?
Most experts don't think so. They argue that the induction of women into the LTTE flies in the face of the nonviolence and humanism that are the foundations of feminist movements all over the world. And in many critics' minds, not only are the LTTE not providing women emancipation, as the organization's public relations officials imply, they're simply supplying themselves with an all-important cadre of bodies for the battlefield. Put another way by objectors: The LTTE isn't actually giving women an equal chance at all of life's endless possibilities. It's only giving them a chance at one thing—an early death.

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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]