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Strange Geographies: Village Life in Vanuatu

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I've written a lot about strange places in the U.S. -- an airplane graveyard in the desert; a mock Iraqi village in the suburbs of San Diego; a town killed by a modern-day dustbowl two hours north of Los Angeles. But the strangest place I've ever been -- the strangest and most beautiful, I should say -- is a developing nation 1000km northeast of Australia, populated by the friendliest former cannibals you'll ever meet, called Vanuatu. I wrote about it a little bit back in April, right after I returned from two weeks in country, but I'd had such a whirlwind trip, and taken thousands of pictures I'd hardly even begun to cull, that I needed six months or so to process just how profoundly different life in Vanuatu is.

It's an archipelago comprised of 84 volcanic islands, each separated by many miles of shark-filled seas and unpredictable weather. Travel between islands is difficult and expensive, and as a result, to many of Vanuatu's 200,000 citizens "international travel" means going to a nearby island every few years to visit cousins. They've had some exposure to foreigners -- missionaries starting in the 19th century (some of whom were eaten); American soldiers during World War II, who established a base on the largest island to fend off the Japanese, stationed in the nearby Solomons; some British and French, who co-governed Vanuatu in a bizarre arrangement for many years; and tourists that come to a few of the islands nowadays (mostly from Australia, which is where they all assumed I was from). But even on the largest islands, which are mountainous and covered with tough-to-penetrate jungle, there are remote villages where locals have rarely, if ever, encountered outsiders. I didn't make it quite that far afield, but I did find myself in a few off-the-beaten villages that were definitely not on the tourist trail, and luckily, I brought my camera.

There's one main city in Vanutu, Port Vila, which is heavily westernized and caters to tourists who come in on cruise ships, and another large-ish town, Luganville, which is a few dusty streets of Chinese-owned shops, French restaurants and hotels catering mainly to scuba divers. Villages throughout the rest of the country rarely have electricity or running water, and though the people are very poor, they own their own land, and the rich soil and unspoiled seas make farming and fishing easy. Food that tourists consider delicacies, like coconut crab, mangoes, pineapple, and all manner of fish, are everyday dishes for the locals. A fisherman on Oyster Island at dusk:

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Families make money by selling what they grow in village gardens at roadside markets like this one:

fruit stand

coconut boy

Cows are everywhere and beef is plentiful. The grass-fed, organic beef raised on Espiritu Santo is considered some of the finest in the world, and is exported to top-tier restaurants in Japan and Australia. What else would you expect from cows that get to hang out on the beach all day? I ran across these ladies while kayaking:

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Of course, when a cow is slaughtered, nothing goes to waste. Fresh oxtail, anyone?

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Pigs are a big deal on Vanuatu, as well. Pigs are a traditional form of monetary exchange, and the most valuable pigs are the ones with the longest tusks. PIgs whose tusks grow so long that they make a loop that pierces the bottom of the animal's jaw -- gruesome, I know -- are especially valuable. Some pig jaws on proud display in an Espiritu Santo meeting hut:
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Homes are made from branches and folded palm leaves, which are sturdy enough to keep out the most torrential rain, but tend to blow away during cyclones (which are frequent). Here's a detail of the underside of a hut roof:
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Here are a few views of typical Vanuatu villages, homes and a Catholic church, all woven from grass and leaves:

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Christianity came with missionaries in the 19th century, and while churches abound, many villages still practice customary religions and black magic. There are also a number of fascinating cults on Vanuatu -- especially on the volcanically active island of Tanna, where tourists come to ogle a lava-spitting mountain they call Old Man Yasur.
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You can climb up to the rim of Yasur, which puts on a humbling show after dark.

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I was disappointed that I wasn't able to visit either of Tanna's cult villages, the best known of which is the Jon Frum cargo cult. A white man known as Jon Frum (possibly "Jon from America") supposedly visited Tanna sometime before the second world war, predicting that white men would drop from the sky with food and all sorts of goods -- which is exactly what happened when the war began. When the Americans and their cargo left, the Jon Frum followers began praying to him, using faux American flags, red cross symbols, and military uniforms, hoping that more cargo from the sky would arrive. It hasn't come yet, but the Jon Frum cultists continue to worship. (Jesus died 2,000 years ago, they like to remind us, and Christians are still waiting around for him to come back.)

The American military left its mark on Vanuatu in other ways, too. Rusting quonset huts are everywhere on Espiritu Santo, and all the country's few paved roads were built by the American government. This wide, pothole-filled road, for instance, is the remnant of a WWII airstrip. Calling it "paved," however, is charitable -- It's in such bad shape that you have to drive in a zigzag pattern just to avoid the axle-breaking holes.
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The Americans also introduced a species of fast-growing vine to Espiritu Santo, in order to cover their installations and hide them from Japanese air surveillance. Those vines covered much of the island in short order:
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The locals I talked to weren't bitter about the American military presence in Vanutu, though. If anything, they seemed grateful: "You are our big strong brother!" one man said to me, flexing a muscle. "You saved us from the Japanese, then gave us our country back!" Which is true, I suppose -- whereas the French and British hung around and tried to run Vanuatu for more than a hundred years, the Americans came, established some bases, and left. Still, it was a novel experience, being thanked by someone abroad for something my country's military did.

Villagers are nothing if not resourceful. Just as they'll use American airstrips as roads, other goods have multiple uses, too. A baby named Florence enjoys an unusual tire swing:
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Once you get away from the beach, getting around the island can be a bit difficult -- rivers and tall, volcanic ridges are everywhere. But villagers, lacking concrete or asphalt, make do anyhow. This is a somewhat treacherous bamboo bridge across a river, on the other side of which is a steep ladder up a hill formed by branches.
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Later, a villager took me to an amazing, bat-filled cave (too dark to photograph) followed by a great deal of scrambling over boulders in a rushing river -- again aided by a number of seemingly death-defying hand-made bridges. (If you look closely, you'll notice that my guide is wearing a Dora the Explorer floatie around his neck.
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Finally, we floated down the river for a half-hour, nipped at by curious fish, walls of rock rising above us. Waterfalls and a riot of vegetation fell down from the cliffs above. It was, in a word, ridiculous, and the cheap waterproof camera I took this picture with does the scene no justice.

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Families and kids are everywhere on Vanuatu; the population is very young.
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Everywhere you go, kids follow, laughing and having fun.
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It was unsettling at first to realize that even the smallest kids carried machetes with them almost everywhere they went. I soon realized that they were invaluable -- the fast-growing jungle constantly needs cutting, and machetes can cut down coconuts and open them, and their blunt handles serve as hammers.

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These kids were showing me their pet eel, which they'd grown to an enormous size in a small, waterfall-fed freshwater pond in their village. They used to have two but the other one had been stolen; the remaining eel was guarded 24/7 by boys with slingshots (and machetes, naturally).
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waterfall girl

Blue kid

Kids in Vanuatu, you won't be surprised to learn, spend a lot of time in the water. Not only is the South Pacific warm year-round, but Vanuatu's islands are dotted with magical "blue holes" -- rain- and river-fed reservoirs of deep, cool, crystal blue water which provide drinking water to nearby villages and swimming holes for its young people.
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After a snorkel:
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After a scuba dive, I came up to find these boys playing on a rock jetty; they'd been following the divers' air bubbles. My lens was wet, and the result is sort of impressionistic, but totally captures the feeling of the place.
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We found this boy smiling at us from a hole in the jungle. A nearby adult explained that he'd just gone through his circumcision ritual, which meant he had to wear a namba (a huge penis-sheath), mud makeup, and hang out in holes for a week or so (this guy's English was about as good as our Bislama, so I'm not totally sure on the details).
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In short, Vanuatu is one strange and beautiful place, and it's people couldn't be friendlier. The South Pacific is a mind-bogglingly huge constellation of little island worlds, and though there are so many more to explore, I'm certain I'll be back to Vanuatu one day.

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Check out more Strange Geographies columns here.

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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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