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8 Candidates for the Next New Nation

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On Saturday, South Sudan declared its independence, becoming the brand-spanking newest nation in the world. While peace and prosperity is still a good way off for this newborn, Texas-sized country—ethnic tensions are high, the economy is in shambles, and a half-dozen rebel groups have already vowed to take down the new government—the South Sudanese people have spent the weekend celebrating in the streets.

So with that, we thought we’d give you a list of eight wannabe countries that would, for one reason or another, love to become the next newest nation in the world.

1. Somaliland

This tiny breakaway region in northern Somalia has its own de facto president, flag and national anthem, and its seventeen year-old government functions both peacefully and fairly democratically—a staggering accomplishment, considering the spectacular collapse of Somalia next door. It even has its own currency, the Somaliland Shilling, which is so devalued a wheelbarrow’s worth will barely buy you a tuna sandwich. Desperately clinging to democracy in a very un-democratic part of the world, Somaliland remains top on the list of wannabe nations.

2. Transdniester

This little slice of paradise is best known for sex trafficking, corruption, poverty, money laundering and weapons. Did I mention weapons? According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the gangs of Transdniester have transported something like 20,000 metric tons of illicit arms—that’s 2,500 full-grown elephants worth of Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades—helping to fuel wars from Nepal to Libya. While Transdniester declared independence from Moldova in 1990, it has little else to show in the way of nationhood. Its economy, governmental structure and mentality remains today frozen two decades in time, leaving its “citizens” to party like it’s 19…89.

3. Northern Cyprus

Not to be confused with either a cypress, the conical tree, or Cypress Hill, the ‘90s rap group you may remember from such hits as “Insane in the Membrane,” the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus occupies a portion of the Mediterranean island-nation of Cyprus. Almost fifty forty years ago, ethnically Turkish Cypriots declared independence from the rest of mostly Greek Cyprus, but no one in the international community—except Turkey (which keeps 30,000 troops there)—recognizes Northern Cyprus as anything but a wannabe nation.

4. Nagorno-Karabagh

Home to more land mines than anywhere else in the former Soviet Union—how’s that for a water tower slogan?—this wannabe nation has been fighting an on-again, off-again war with Azerbaijan for more than two decades. Long story short? After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabagh’s ethnic Armenians declared they would become a new nation of their own, but Azerbaijan, which had controlled Nagorno-Karabagh during Soviet times, was going to have none of it. Cue a brutal three-year war from 1991 to 1994, wherein Karabagh rebels (backed by Armenia) squared off against Azerbaijan. Both sides massacred a fair share of each other’s civilians before hostilities fizzled out. Nowadays, an entrenched ceasefire line snakes down the border between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh, which not even Armenia recognizes as a real state.

5. Western Sahara

If the entire population of Albuquerque lived in a region the size of Colorado, it would be about as crowded as Western Sahara—one of the most sparsely populated places on earth. The step ladder-shaped piece of land between Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria in northwest Africa is the bastard child of Spanish colonialism. When the Spaniards left town in the ‘70s, Western Sahara-ites declared their independence, while Morocco claimed the swath of desert as part of its territory. Thirty years later, the Organization of African States recognizes Western Sahara—known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic—as an independent state; the Arab League remains squarely on Morocco’s side.

6. Abkhazia

This Puerto Rico-sized region, wedged between Russia and Georgia on Black Sea, has its own de facto president, parliament, flag and national anthem, but Georgians still claim it’s merely a rebellious region within Georgia proper. The conflict goes back to Soviet times, when Abkhazia was an autonomous region within the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Abkhazia fought a horrific civil war with Georgia, leaving neither side clearly victorious. Afterward, Georgia went on treating Abkhazia as part of its territory, and Abkhazia went on acting as if it were independent. Only Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru—the tiniest country—recognize it as anything more than one of the loudest wannabe nations in the world.

7. South Ossetia

Nestled between Russia and Georgia, and claimed by Georgia, this Rhode Island-sized territory shares a similar history with Abkhazia. During Soviet times, it was an autonomous region within the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia, but when the Soviet Union combusted, the Ossetians wanted their own country. Georgia said no. In 2008, South Ossetia was the flashpoint for a six-day war between Georgia and Russia, which went on to recognize South Ossetia as an independent state—the diplomatic equivalent of flipping Georgia the bird.

8. Palestine

As one of the hottest of the hot button issues today, we’re all familiar with the concept of a “two-state solution” to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, but many Palestinians argue that two states already exist. While the Israelis say that the Palestinian territories are just that, territories, the Palestinians say that’s bogus, arguing Palestine is already a country in its own right. Palestinian leadership plans to force the issue with the United Nations this September, when member states may be asked to formally vote on whether Palestine is already an independent country—or whether it belongs on this list of wannabe states.

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]