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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
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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Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]