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How an Island Full of Landmines Led to a Thriving Penguin Population

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by Hank Green

War—what is it good for? Well, if the Falkland Islands are any indication, it certainly helps penguins.

© Will Gray/JAI/Corbis

For several hundred years, human activity on the Falkland Islands—roughly 300 miles off the Argentine coast—threatened its penguins’ survival. But that trend started to reverse in 1982, when Argentina and Britain began duking it out for control of the Falklands. Turns out, a war, a few landmines, and some unstable diplomatic relations might have been just enough to get the penguins back on track.

The Falkland Islands are small. Collectively, the 200-plus islands that make up the Falklands are only about as big as Connecticut. But through the years, they’ve managed to inspire some Texas-size international contention. Ever since Argentina gained independence from Spain in 1816, it’s been vying for control of the Falklands in one form or another. Some Argentines even claim possession of the region today, even though Queen Elizabeth’s face graces the currency, the Union Jack appears on the official flag, and every other government recognizes British rule over the Falklands. Despite the fact that Argentina famously lost its military bid for control of the islands back in 1982, national polls still show that 80 percent of Argentines want their government to take back the Islas Malvinas, as they’re known in the Spanish-speaking nation.

So what is it the Argentines so jealously covet? Hard to say. The Falkland Islands aren’t home to much, other than about 3,000 humans, 700,000 sheep, and a few fishing installations. What they do have, however, is an enormous population of penguins from five different species—the Southern Rockhoppers, the Magellanic, the King, the Gentoo, and the Macaroni. Their names derive from, respectively, the ability to hop on rocks, a celebrated circumnavigator, a British ruler, a religious slur, and a slang reference to flashy dressers. With these five species combined, the Falklands are home to a penguin army more than 1 million strong. That’s pretty impressive, but it’s believed the number was closer to 10 million only 300 years ago.

In the 18th century, the whale oil industry was booming, and the Falklands had their fair share of whales. Not coincidentally, French, British, and Spanish groups began showing up on the islands to get in on the action. But whale oil isn’t exactly the easiest thing to produce. First, whales are brought ashore. Then their blubber is separated from their bodies, and the fat is rendered into oil in gigantic vats of boiling water. The Falkland Islands had plenty of whales, but they’re mostly void of timber, and burning whale oil to render whale oil seemed a little silly. So how did the settlers make their Falkland outposts survive? “François, throw another penguin on the fire!” Yes, as it turned out, penguins made surprisingly good kindling, thanks to layers of protective (and, apparently, highly flammable) fat beneath their skin. And it didn’t hurt that they’re so easy to catch. Penguins are flightless and unafraid of humans, so anytime the rendering fires got low, whalers simply grabbed a penguin or two and tossed ’em in.

One Fish, Two Fish

Fortunately for the penguins, the whale oil business died out in the 1860s with the discovery of fossil fuels. That left the islands with little commercial industry, and the worst thing the penguins had to worry about for a while was the occasional egg theft. But peaceful human-penguin relations hit a roadblock again in 1982, when Argentina made its ill-fated attempt to reclaim the Falklands.

Although the British presence on the Falkland Islands had long been a sore spot for Argentina, no Argentine leader had ever tried to force a national claim to the land. At the time, however, the military government, led by General Leopoldo Galtieri, was in a unique situation. Already unpopular at home because of his habit of kidnapping and killing opposition leaders, Galtieri started to get truly nervous when the Argentine economy began to sink. Fearing outright rebellion, Galtieri tried to enlist the spirit of nationalism by invading the largely unprotected Falklands on April 2. He quickly declared victory over the British, but his success was short-lived. Unfortunately for Galtieri, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher didn’t believe in capitulating to dictators, even regarding land as inconsequential and unprofitable as the Falklands. The United Kingdom quickly struck back. In the ensuing two-month conflict, more than 1,000 Argentine servicemen died, and Galtieri’s political downfall was solidified.

When the dust cleared, Britain’s leaders realized they’d just spent several million pounds to assert control over the Falklands, and it was probably in their best interest to find some way to prove to the public that the expense had been worthwhile. Fishing seemed like the best way to make the Falklands economically self-sufficient, so the British government set up an exclusive fishing zone around the islands and began selling permits to everyone from local islanders to gigantic international fishing companies. It was a fine plan, except that the penguins relied on those same fish for survival. Before long, competing with humans for food had become a far greater threat to the penguins than whaling had ever been. In a single decade, the Islands’ penguin population dropped from more than 6 million to fewer than 1 million.

The Spoils of War

The Falkland Islands War, and the dwindling supply of fish that came with it, seriously threatened the local penguins. But, ironically enough, it also led to their gradual comeback. Since the dispute, Britain and Argentina have approached one another on diplomatic eggshells, if at all. As a result, neither side has been willing to risk angering the other by drilling for oil off the Falklands’ coast—even though experts estimate that 11 billion barrels worth of oil lie buried out there. That’s good news for all of penguinkind. In other parts of the world, even small amounts of oil leaked from drilling stations have proven disastrous for penguins. The flightless birds rely on a very specific balance of oils in their feathers in order to maintain perfect buoyancy. When mixed with crude oil, penguins will either sink and drown or float and starve. But as long as tensions remain high between the two nations, the Falklands penguins are in the clear.

The Falklands War also left the penguins with a bizarre kind of habitat protection. During Argentina’s occupation of the islands, its military laid down landmines along the beaches and pastureland near the capital city to deter the British from reclaiming the area. So far, these landmines haven’t killed anyone, but the well-marked and fenced-off explosive zones have made for prime penguin habitat. The penguins aren’t heavy enough to set off the mines, but because sheep and humans are, the little guys have the minefields all to themselves.

Today, there are still an estimated 20,000 landmines on the Falkland Islands. Over the years, they’ve come in pretty handy not only for protecting the penguin habitat from over-grazing, but also for keeping out overzealous tourists. Consequently, Falkland Islanders have decided that maybe having landmines isn’t such a bad thing. After all, signs warning “Keep away from the penguins” will never be as effective as “Keep away from the penguins—or die.”

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. If you're in a subscribing mood, here are the details. Got an iPad? We also offer digital subscriptions through Zinio.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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