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3 Really Long Wars

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Some wars seem to go on forever, and others actually do. Here are a few wars that have outlasted entire generations of people.

1. Isles of Scilly vs. Dutch Republic (335 Years)

The Three Hundred and Thirty Five Years' War is not only among the world's longest wars, but also one with the fewest casualties. Remarkably, a shot was never even fired, and the two parties didn't even know that they were in a war.

stmartins.jpgThe conflict originated during the Second English Civil War, part of the historic fight between Oliver Cromwell's Parliamentarians against King Charles I and his Royalist army. The Parliamentarians dominated the war and reduced the Royalists to a single stronghold in Cornwall, in the western United Kingdom. The Royalists were forced to retreat to the islands of Scilly, a scarcely populated archipelago known for its natural beauty (kind of a British Hawaii). The Dutch owed England for their help during the 80 Years' War against the Spanish, and so they sided with the seeming victor and sent naval support to the Isles of Scilly. The Dutch suffered serious cargo and ship losses; Admiral Maarten Harpertszoon Tromp went to Scilly to demand reparations from the Royalists. When he was denied, he declared war specifically upon the Isles of Scilly on April 17, 1651. Months later, the Royalists surrendered to the Parliamentarians, King Charles was beheaded, and the Dutch left the area without officially declaring peace.

In 1985, a historian wrote to the Dutch Embassy in London asking them to dispel the myth that the two parties remained in a war. After some research, the myth was proven true. A light-hearted peace treaty signing ceremony took place April 17, 1986, exactly 335 years after war had been declared.

2. Arauco War (About 290 Years)

During their domination of South America, the Spanish repeatedly tried to colonize the Mapuche, who had already thwarted attempts by the Incas. The war started in 1536 at the Battle of Reynogüelén, where the Spanish met a strong army while attempting to investigate the Strait of Magellan. The Mapuche refused to let the Spanish even cut through their territory and attacked the small Spanish army. Though the Spanish were outnumbered 24,000 to 5,000, their advanced weapons killed thousands of Mapuches and forced them to retreat.

270px-Espanoles_guerreando_en_chile_ovalle.jpgOver the following decades, the two sides met often in battle, with mixed results. But the Mapuche remained independent from Spanish rule, thanks in part to the natural boundary of the Bio Bio River. Battles were common during the 300 years of Spanish presence, but trade and interchange between Mapuche and Spaniards or Chileans also became common. The heaviest fighting occurred before 1609, when a maintenance treaty was signed between the Spanish-appointed governor of Chile and the Mapuche chiefs.

The War of Chilean Independence expelled Spanish rule from Chile. Surprisingly, the Mapuches opposed the war and the transition. With the Spanish gone, peace was established on January 7, 1825, about 290 years after the first battle. Chile used force and diplomacy to absorb Mapuche territories and the Mapuche were immediately devastated by starvation, disease and economic loss.

3. Japan, Russia and Montenegro (Various Lengths)

Diplomatic technicalities have legally extended many wars, but some of the strangest seem to involve Russia and Japan.

peace-treaty.jpgThe Russo-Japanese war started in 1904 and lasted only a year. Montenegro, a small Adriatic republic, showed support for their ally Russia by also declaring war on Japan. Of course, the tiny nation of Montenegro didn't have a navy or really any way to engage in combat against the Japanese, who were thousands of miles away. Though the actual war was rather swift, Montenegro didn't attend the signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth with Russian and Japan, nor did they seek their own treaty. The issue was forgotten about for decades as Montenegro joined Yugoslavia and later Serbia, but was brought to attention when Montenegro opted for sole independence in 2006. Finally, the Japan and Montenegro signed an official peace treaty in 2006. [Image courtesy of]

But, wait, that's not it. Russia, now the Soviet Union, declared war on Japan again in 1945 during World War II and remain formally in a state of war to this day. Though they were in attendance, the Soviet Union refused to sign Treaty of San Francisco, the peace pact between the Allied Powers and Japan signed in 1951. The Soviet delegation opposed the lack of a guarantee against Japanese militarism and the exclusion of communist China from the conference (among other things). Additionally, the two nations still have a heated dispute over ownership of the Kuril Islands, an area taken by the Soviets during the war. Japan maintains that the islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomai rocks are not part of the Kuril Islands, and thus belong to Japan. Russia maintains that they own the four disputed islands. The two nations signed a joint declaration of peace to restore diplomatic relations in 1956. However, they have not formally ended the declaration of war. Russia will hand over the Shikotan and Habomai islands "provided that the actual changing over to Japan of these islands will be carried out after the conclusion of a peace treaty." So far, no one has proposed a treaty and Russia administers all of the Kuril Islands. The issue was raised again in summer 2008 when the Japanese government issued a new guideline for textbooks stating that the islands were under their rule.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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