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On the 20th Anniversary of the Burma Uprising

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Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Burma's uprising on August 8th, 1988. Over 3,000 Burmese citizens were killed while peacefully protesting the socialist regime. Yet, not many news organizations seem to be giving it much coverage. Here's a rundown of the uprising and repercussions that are still being felt there today.

When: August 8th- September 18th 1988

Where it happened:
Burma aka Myanmar. At the time of the uprising, Burma was a socialist state.

The Story:

Picture 83.pngUniversity students in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), the former capital of Burma, staged a peaceful protest in response to the death of Phone Maw who was a student at the Rangoon Technical University. He was shot by a soldier in front of the main building on campus during a demonstration.
At the time of the uprising, Ne Win was General and Head of State of Burma, and the Chairman of the Burma Socialist Programme Party. His policy of rapid nationalization of industries caused Burma to sink even deeper into poverty, a state it maintains today. Just how bad was it? In 1987, Ne Win declared that 80 percent of the money in circulation had no value. In essence, it instantly rendered the savings of thousands of Burmese worthless.

The shooting ignited an already agitated public, and hundreds of thousands of Burmese monks, schoolteachers, hospital staff, and customs officers eventually took to the streets in peaceful protests. The revolutionary spirit proved infectious and soon spread to neighboring cities in the following weeks. According to Win Min, a Burmese exile, "the whole country was marching in the streets."Â  That is, until the marches were brutally quelled by the military.
During the August 8th uprising Ne Win told his soldiers "Guns were not to shoot upwards," meaning he was giving them permission to kill protestors. Monopolizing on the unrest, General Saw Muang staged a coup d'etat, declared martial law, and formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council.

The Death Toll:

During the mass uprising on August 8th a reported 1,000 protesters were shot. Until the military assumed power on September 18th, another 3,000 were estimated to have been shot and another 10,000 fled to the mountains or across the border to China or India. One exile, Ngun Cung Lian, participated in the protests, and even led one in his hometown. To escape persecution he walked for seven days in the jungles of India. Today, he resides in America.
Present Day Situation:

Picture 94.pngNot much has changed in Burma. There is a new leader but it is still a military junta and they still fail to recognize fair elections. The junta continuously violates human rights. Many exiles and democratic leaders in Burma have hope for the future, however. They say the time is right for the democratization of Burma. First, the poor handling of Cyclone Nargis last May has reignited the Burmese will to fight for democracy. Second, China wants stability in the country, which is quickly becoming more chaotic by the day. And finally, the internet is allowing exiles to communicate with people in Burma in ways never thought possible, helping to facilitate a transition to democracy. The next elections in Burma will be held in 2010, but seeing as the last elections were held in 1990 and not recognized by the military junta, the Burmese still have an uphill battle to fight.

Quick Facts:
"¢ The World Bank discontinued all lending to the country in 1987 and has no plans to reinstate lending policies to the country.
"¢ Many people debate the use of Burma vs. Myanmar. By not recognizing the name given by a military junta, people claim it delegitimizes their claim to political power. Others view the problem as a Catch-22: Great Britain gave Burma its name when it colonized the region.
"¢ Burma is slightly smaller than Texas.
"¢ Nine months after the August 8th uprising, the famous Tiananmen Square Protests took place in Burma's neighboring country, China.
"¢ The uprising went unknown for many years as the new Junta quickly cut off all means off communication with the outside world and the global eye quickly shifted to the incident in Tiananmen Square.

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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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iStock
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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