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10 Things You Didn't Know About Somali Pirates

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by David Axe

In the 15 years since armed Somali fishermen began forcing their way onto commercial ships, pirates have turned East Africa's seas into the world's most dangerous waters. In 2008 alone, Somalia's lawless seamen captured more than 40 large vessels in the Gulf of Aden, a shortcut between Asia and Europe that's vital to the global economy. Wiping out today's pirates won't be easy; they're smarter, better organized, and, frankly, better loved abroad than the swashbucklers of yesteryear. In a special dispatch from Mombasa, Kenya, "¨mental_floss correspondent David Axe explains.

1. They Have a Robin Hood Complex

Many Somali pirates see themselves as good guys. And at one point, they were. After the government in Mogadishu collapsed in 1991, neighboring countries began illegally fishing in Somali waters. The first pirates were simply angry fishermen who boarded these foreign vessels and demanded a "fee." But as the illegal fishing persisted, some early pirates banded together and called themselves "coast guards." They claimed to be looking after Somalia's territorial integrity until the government could pull itself back together.

These weren't the only vigilantes on the scene, however. Other pirates made their debut robbing U.N. ships that were carrying food to refugee camps in Somalia. These bandits argued that if they hadn't taken the food, warlords would have seized it on land. And they had a good point. Warlords gobbled down at lot of Somalia's relief food during the 1990s.

But from these perhaps defensible beginnings, piracy spread farther from Somalia's shores and evolved into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. Today, pirates are blunt about their motives. In late 2008, after a band of pirates seized a Ukrainian freighter full of weapons and demanded $25 million for its release, Sugule Ali, a member of the pirate crew, told a reporter, "We only want the money."

2. Nobody Brings Home the Bacon Like a Pirate

According to some estimates, pirates in 2008 pulled in as much as $150 million, indicating that piracy is now Somalia's biggest industry. In fact, successful pirates are the country's most eligible bachelors. While small-time swashbucklers earn in the low five figures, bosses can pull in $2 million a year—this, in a country where you can buy dinner for less than $1. But as their wallets fatten, many pirates are heading for greener pastures, and the real money is flowing out of the country with them. Many are buying properties on the seashore of Mombasa, Kenya, where new condos are being built every day. If a condo is selling for a few million dollars, there's a good chance the bosses will throw in an extra half-million, just to make sure the Kenyans don't ask too many questions.

3. Being a Pirate Is Easy!

Piracy is so simple that anyone can do it. All you need is a gun, an aluminum ladder (for scaling other ships), and a motorboat. Then you just have to wait for commercial ships to pass by. Best of all, you don't have to worry about your targets shooting back. By international agreement, civilian vessels aren't allowed to carry guns because governments don't want armed ships moving from port to port. "Once pirates are on board, they've got the upper hand," says Martin Murphy, a piracy expert with the Corbett Center for Maritime Policy Studies. The best defense against piracy is speed, but because most commercial ships aren't designed to go fast, pirates don't have any trouble chasing them down. The most sophisticated marauders use machine guns and GPS systems, but many pirates are still low-tech fisherman. After they board a ship, all they have to do is steal or ransom the goods and prisoners. The cargo of a typical commercial ship ransoms for about $1 million.

4. The Law Can't Touch Them

Everybody knows piracy is wrong, but is it illegal? The truth is that the places where pirates operate are actually lawless. In Somali territory, there's no functional government to make or enforce regulations. And because nations don't control much of the ocean, there are no laws on the high seas, either. Throughout history, governments have patched together legal frameworks to bring pirates to justice, but it's never fast or easy. Pirates—even those caught in the act by one navy or another—are often simply released on the nearest Somali beach, without so much as a slap on the wrist.

With Somali piracy on the rise, the world is playing legal catch-up. In November 2008, the United Kingdom signed an agreement to try pirates captured by the Royal Navy in Kenya. And other countries are following Britain's lead, with nations including the United States, Singapore, and Turkey signing similar agreements. But Kenya, despite having the most powerful democracy in East Africa, doesn't appear to have an effective court system. When Britain's first batch of eight captured pirates went on trial in Mombasa in December, the defense argued that Kenya shouldn't have jurisdiction and succeeded in persuading the judge to defer the trial. The long-term solution to piracy is a stable Somali government with a functional judiciary, but that requires peace between the country's warring clans. Somalia's new president, elected in February 2009, is just starting to get groups to talk.

5. Pirates Rarely Kill People (Which is Why They're So Dangerous)

som-pir-2.jpgIt's difficult to tell pirates from fishermen, until they climb aboard another ship and pull out their AK-47s. So, there's not much the U.S. Navy and other military forces can do as a deterrent except sail around and look menacing. After pirates have seized a ship, navies rarely attempt to retake it, because hostages could be hurt in the process. In the absence of an effective defense, there were more than 100 documented pirate attacks in 2008 that resulted in more than 40 ships being hijacked. But for all their aggression, the body count is low. One ship's captain died of natural causes while being held hostage, and a few militia men have died in shoot-outs as they tried to rescue prisoners, but in general, little blood has been spilled.

Pirates also prefer to keep their prisoners in good health. Not only are civilians worth hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece in ransom, but the pirates' reputation for not harming their hostages has made governments reluctant to strike back on behalf of shipping companies. While the pirates' hands remain mostly blood-free, the navies patrolling East African waters have taken lives. The Indian navy, for example, destroyed one pirate boat only to discover that the pirates had Thai hostages on board. At least a dozen innocent victims died.

6. Pirates Have Friends in High Places

Pirates prowl about 2 million square miles of the ocean. That's a lot of water, and even with thousands of ships on the high seas, it's possible to sail for days without seeing another vessel. So how do pirates know where to look and which ships to attack? Spies. The biggest gangs have informants in Mombasa, the major port in the region, where ships have to file paperwork stating what they're carrying and where they're going. According to one Mombasa business leader, spies inside the Kenyan maritime agencies pass along this information to pirate bosses—for a price. Pirates are also in cahoots with local big-wigs in northern Somalia. In exchange for a cut of pirates' hauls, officials in the Puntland region of Somalia turn a blind eye to the international crime flourishing under their noses.

7. Sailors Are Fighting Back (And It's Working)

Sailors know what they're getting into when they steer toward East African waters. And because their crews can't carry guns, they've found other ways to fight off pirates. Last year, one Chinese ship used tactics borrowed straight from a medieval castle siege.

When pirates clambered up the side of the Zhenhua 4, the crew climbed onto a higher deck and pulled up the ladder. Then they turned on high-pressure fire hoses and knocked the pirates off their feet. But the crew didn't stop there. Once in better position, the Chinese sailors started hurling down Molotov cocktails, made from beer bottles filled with gasoline.

Four hundred cocktails later, the pirates retreated. One pirate, who wasn't wearing any shoes, saw he was about to walk across a deck paved with shattered glass to get back to his ship. He called up to the ship's stalwart defenders and begged for something to cover his feet.

8. Bigger Ships Mean Bigger Paychecks

Somali pirates are getting bolder. For years, they've chased small fry, such as Kenyan fishermen, small coastal freighters, and U.N. food ships. Today, with faster boats, better weapons, and more accurate information from their spies, they're going after massive cargo ships, super-tankers, and even passenger liners. Nobody's safe. In September, pirates grabbed a Ukrainian ship called the Faina, which was carrying armored vehicles, rockets, and other weapons. They followed up that dramatic heist by overtaking the Saudi oil tanker Sirius Star, which had crude oil aboard valued at $100 million. (Both ships were released earlier this year after ransoms were paid.) Recent attacks on cruise-liners have been unsuccessful, but maritime officials are increasingly worried. Pirates usually attack in groups of about 10 and capture ships with 20 or so passengers. That ratio of captors to captives lets the pirates stay in control. But with cruise ships carrying as many as 2,000 people, there's no way pirates would be able to conduct an orderly capture. Things might get out of hand; and that, officials say, is when people get hurt.

9. Pirates Hurt Somalia the Most

The biggest victims of Somali piracy are the Somalis themselves. Nearly 4 million people there (half the population) depend on food donations to survive. But pirate attacks on food ships have made it difficult for the United Nations to keep sending provisions. In a desperate bid to keep the supplies flowing, the U.N. issued a plea to the world's navies in 2007. As of March 2009, no food ship sets sail from Mombasa without a Dutch, Canadian, French, German, Italian, or Greek warship riding shotgun. "If you don't have an escort, you cannot move food there," says U.N. official Lemma Jembere. But naval deployments are expensive, and warships might not be available forever. This could mean death by starvation for millions, all due to a few thousand opportunistic pirates.

10. It May Be Time for Desperate Measures

Even with the world's navies rushing to protect East African shipping, the sheer size of the ocean and the huge numbers of ships involved mean warships are rarely in the right place at the right time. The mood in Mombasa, where so many ship owners and seafarers are based, is bleak. Karim Kudrati, a shipping director whose four ships have all been hijacked at least once, says it's time for the world to mobilize an army and invade Somalia. "Everybody knows where captured vessels are being taken, and on that aspect of things, nothing is being done."

The United Nations recently passed a resolution allowing an invasion, but the United States military has put the brakes on participating in any operation. Perhaps they're hesitant because of their last experience sending troops to Somalia. In 1993, 18 Americans were killed during a commando raid to capture a few, low-ranking warlords. And yet, it's becoming more and more clear that without major, international intervention, piracy will continue to grow. With the benefits far outweighing the risks, pirates have no incentive to stop pillaging.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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