CLOSE
Original image

It's Complicated: 5 Puzzling International Borders

Original image

Most of us think of international borders as invisible, but clear-cut, lines: stand on one side, and you’re in one country; stand on the other, you’re in another country. But here’s a list of five international borders that, for one reason or another, are not quite that simple.

1. The Indian Exclave in Bangladesh That Contains a Bangladeshi Exclave (Which Contains Another Indian Territory)

The Cooch-Behar District, nestled between Bangladesh and India, is one of the most confusing border zones in the world, with 102 mini-exclaves belonging to India splattered on the Bangladeshi side of the border, and 71 exclaves belonging to Bangladesh peppering the Indian side. To further confuse things, inside many of those exclaves, there are other, even smaller exclaves belonging to the other country.

For example, take the Indian region of Balapara Khagrabari. It’s an Indian exclave on the Bangladeshi side of the border, and contains inside of it, a Bangladeshi exclave, which, in turn, contains yet another Indian territory—like a doughnut inside of a doughnut inside of a doughnut. In Bangladesh. Or in non-pastry terms: Balapara Khagrabari is the only place in the world where an exclave contains another exclave that contains yet another exclave.

So why’d the border get drawn like that? It can all be traced back to power struggles between local kings hundreds of years ago, who would try to claim pockets of land inside each other’s territories as a way to leverage political power. When Bangladesh became independent from India in 1947 (as East Pakistan until 1971), all those separate pockets of land were divvied up. Hence the polka-dotted mess.

In 2011, the Indian and Bangladeshi governments signed a treaty that will eventually get rid of all the exclaves, draw a nice clean line between the countries, and allow people living within the enclaves to choose which nationality they’d like to have.

2. Closing Time at the Dutch-Belgian Border

Image credit: Jérôme

Any border buff worth his salt will tell you about the little town of Baarle, which straddles the Dutch-Belgian border. The Belgian portion of town, known as Baarle Hertog, is not so much a hunk of territory as a smattering of tiny exclaves inside of the Netherlands town of Baarle-Nassau. As in Cooch-Behar, many of those Belgian exclaves also contain Dutch exclaves, making a map of the whole town look like one of Jackson Pollock’s crazier designs.

The official border between Belgium and the Netherlands runs through living rooms, yards and cafés, so it’s possible – indeed, it happens more often than you’d think – to sit across a table having a cup of coffee with someone who is actually in a different country.

For a while, a Dutch law requiring dining establishments to close earlier than they did in Belgium laid the foundation for an absurd, nightly charade in some Baarle restaurants. At closing time in the Netherlands, patrons would have to get up and move tables, over to the Belgian side. Like in Cooch-Behar, Baarle’s complex borderline has to do with how regional lords and dukes divided up their land hundreds of years ago.

3. The American Town That's Really in Canada

In 1787, the Treaty of Paris basically laid out which British territories would go to the freshly victorious American rebels, and which would remain part of British Canada. The treaty said that the Americans would get all the British territory “through the Lake of the Woods, to the northwestern most point thereof, and from thence on a due west course to the river Mississippi…” The only problem was, the map they were using wasn’t quite right.

They didn’t know at the time that the source of the Mississippi was actually farther south, so if you follow their instructions to a T, you get this funny, 123 square mile blip of Minnesota up in the middle of Canadian territory, which still exists today. It’s called the “Northwest Angle,” and can only be accessed from the U.S. by land by crossing into Canadian territory first.

The citizens of the tiny Angle Township must check in via videophone to the Canadian customs authorities when they want to leave their village, and with the American customs authorities when they want to come back.

4. The Island Where You Can See the Future

There are two islands — known as the Diomedes, about two and a half miles apart — right smack in the middle of the Bering Strait. One of them, Little Diomede (pictured), belongs to the U.S., and has a hardcore, weather-bitten population of about 150. The other island, Big Diomede, belongs to Russia and is uninhabited. The space between these two islands marks not only an international border, but the International Date Line as well, making it possible for the folks on Little Diomede to wake up on a Sunday, pour themselves a cup of coffee, and peer across the water to Big Diomede, where it’s already Monday.

5. The Little Hunk of Land That Nobody Wants

Image credit: World Geo Blog

In 1899, when the British Empire controlled Egypt and Sudan, the Brits drew a little map. They said that Sudan would get all the stuff south of the 22nd parallel, while Egypt would get all the stuff north of it. It would have been simple enough, except three years later, a different group of Brits drew a different map, which mostly followed the 22nd parallel, but not exactly.

The 1902 map gave Sudan an extra chunk of fertile territory, known as the Hala’ib Triangle, north of the 22nd parallel, while allotting the Egyptians a rather useless chunk of desert, known as Bir Tawil, south of the parallel. One hundred and ten years later, the border is still in dispute.

Not shockingly, the Egyptians insist the 1899 map shows the “real” borders, while the Sudanese say the 1902 map is more accurate. Both countries claim the fertile Hala’ib Triangle, while neither country—or anyone else, for that matter—claims the Bir Tawil.

This story originally appeared in 2011.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
quiz
arrow
Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
Original image
SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES