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3 Really Short Wars

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Many leaders resort to war only as a last resort, and vow to achieve their results quickly. Here are a few wars that did just that, including one that was over in less time than it would take to watch a History Channel special about it.

1. Sino-Vietnamese War (27 Days)

sino-war.jpgThe 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War was the third in a little over twenty years between the two countries and was started, in part, by unresolved issues from previous conflicts. China supported the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, while Vietnam opposed it. Cambodia feared an invasion by Vietnam after diplomatic relations collapsed, and so they attacked Vietnam first, resulting in Vietnam invading and occupying Cambodia for over a decade. After large-scale fighting between Vietnam and Cambodia ended, China stood up for their ally and attacked Soviet-backed Vietnam.


The Chinese attacked Vietnam along their shared border and took several small villages in heavy combat. On March 5, the Chinese announced the campaign was over, stating that they had made their point and adequately chastised Vietnam for its actions. This war would be only 16 days long; however, the Chinese continued to cause extensive damage to villages, roads and railroads during their retreat. The conflict was officially resolved on March 16, 1979, just 27 days after it began.

Both sides claimed victory and heavy but unconfirmed casualties. The Vietnamese government continuously requested an official apology from the Chinese government for its seemingly pointless invasion of Vietnam, but never got one. Relations were normalized in 1990 after several small border skirmishes, and Vietnam officially dropped its demand for an apology. Vietnam continued to occupy Cambodia until 1989, though the Khmer Rouge had been seriously weakened by the Vietnamese occupation.

2. The India-Pakistan War (13 Days)

india-pakistan.jpgIndia and Pakistan aren't exactly known as friendly neighbors. Skirmishes, diplomatic aggression and war are common—in fact, the 1971 conflict was the third since the countries gained independence in 1947. The shortest and perhaps most devastating war originated over the independence of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.


Pakistan was accused of many atrocities against humanity in East Pakistan (which it ruled), causing as many as 10 million refugees to flee to India. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi used diplomacy with the UN and the Soviet Union to strengthen India's position and provided weapons to the East Pakistanis. Though both sides had prepared for war, Pakistan launched an air strike on December 3, 1971, and India immediately declared war.

Indian forces used blitzkreig techniques to quickly overpower the Pakistanis. Pakistan forces in Bangladesh surrendered on December 16; the rest of Pakistan surrendered the next day.

3. The Anglo-Zanzibar War (40 Minutes)

marines.jpgTaking the prize as the shortest war on the history books is the Anglo-Zanzibar War, measured not in months, days, or even hours, but minutes (about 40 of them).


Back in the day of British imperialism, the British administered the island of Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania) as a sovereign protectorate with a puppet government. When favored Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini died on August 25, 1896, he was immediately replaced by his nephew Khalid bin Barghash, who wasn't exactly the guy the British had in mind—and on top of that, he was suspected of killing his uncle. The British used a succession treaty signed earlier in the year to leverage an ultimatum: abdicate or face war. Instead, Sultan Khalid raised his flag outside his palace and barricaded himself inside along with his guards and about 2800 Zanzibaris.

By the time the deadline expired two days later, the British had amassed a powerful naval fleet just outside the palace. The Zanzibaris, believing that the British wouldn't open fire, sent a page telling them just that. The British promptly unleashed a powerful bombardment of shells, machine gun fire and cannonballs. The attack lasted about 40 minutes but caused extensive damage. The wooden palace had caught fire, the Sultan's flag had been removed, and 500 natives had been killed. The British took over the demolished palace and installed their Sultan of choice, while Sultan Khalid escaped to German East Africa, where he was captured in 1916 during World War I. There were no further altercations between the Zanzibaris and the British for the remainder of their reign, which lasted until December of 1963.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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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]

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