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CC by 2.0 // Flickr // JGNY

10 Uninhabited Islands and Why Nobody Lives on Them

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CC by 2.0 // Flickr // JGNY

The internet has embraced the story of Brendon Grimshaw over the past couple of weeks. Grimshaw did what so many dream of doing: he bought an island. He purchased Moyenne Island in the Indian Ocean in 1964 for $20,000, quit his job in 1973 to move there, and spent the past 40 years developing it into a paradise, cultivating and protecting flora and fauna native to the Seychelles. Now 86, Grimshaw's island is worth millions to developers, but he is determined that it remain a nature preserve after his death.

There are still many abandoned and uninhabited islands around the world. Why isn't there anyone living on them? After all, 270 people live on Tristan de Cunha, which is 2430 kilometers from the next inhabited island! The reasons islands remain uninhabited are financial, political, environmental, or religious -or a combination of those reasons.

1. ?kunoshima Island

?kunoshima

Three kilometers off the coast of Japan, ?kunoshima Island is overrun with rabbits, which are not a native species. But there are no human residents on Okunoshima Island. It was once the site of a chemical weapons plant, turning out poison gas for the Japanese Imperial Army from 1929 to 1945. The Allied Occupation Forces dismantled the plant and let laboratory animals go free (hence the rabbits). Japan did not speak of Okunoshima for many years. Then in 1988, the ?kunoshima Poison Gas Museum was opened on the site. Tourists take the ferry to the island to interact with the friendly rabbits more than to see the museum. Photograph by Flickr user GetHiroshima.

2. Antipodes Islands

The Antipodes are a group of volcanic islands south of New Zealand. The cold climate and harsh winds make the islands too harsh a place to live. It is known for numerous shipwrecks and deaths, some from trying to survive on the islands, despite supplies being left there in castaway huts, as seen in the photograph. Two people died by shipwreck there as recently as 1999.

3. Jaco Island

Jaco Island in East Timor has no permanent inhabitants because locals consider it sacred land. However, that does not mean they won't accommodate tourists. Day trips as well as camping on the island is encouraged. Local fishermen double as vendors to the tourists. Since 2007, Jaco Island is part of Nino Konis Santana National Park.

4. Clipperton Island

Clipperton Island is actually a coral atoll south of Mexico and west of Guatemala in the Pacific. It was claimed first by the French, then Americans, who mined it for guano. Mexico took possession in 1897, and allowed a British company to mine guano there. In 1914, the Mexican civil war caused the island's 100 or so residents to be cut off from transportation and supplies. In 1917, the last surviving islanders, three women, were rescued and evacuated. Ownership reverted to France, which manned a lighthouse on Clipperton Island, but after World War II it was completely abandoned. There are occasional scientific expeditions to the atoll.

5. North Brother Island

How can an island in the East River in New York City be forgotten? Ah, because it’s a protected nesting area, and therefore off-limits to the public. Still, North Brother Island has quite a history. Riverside Hospital opened a quarantine facility for smallpox patients on the 20-acre island in 1885. The hospital later took in patients with other communicable diseases, such as venereal disease and typhoid. It was here that Typhoid Mary was housed for two decades until her death in 1938. The hospital closed in 1942, but the buildings were used for veteran's housing for a while, then as a rehab center for young drug addicts, but corruption, abuse, and rights violations forced the facility to close for good in 1963. The buildings still stand in their ruined state, and are said to be haunted by the many who died or suffered there. Photo via CC by 2.0 // Flickr // JGNY

6. Battleship Island

Hashima Island in Japan is often referred to as Battleship Island because that's what it looks like. About 15 kilometers from Nagasaki, the island sat above a profitable coal seam that was mined from 1887 until 1974. Miners and their families lived on the island, which is only around 15 acres. At its height, Hashima Island had over 5,000 residents, densely packed into large apartment blocks. When the coal business fizzled, those buildings were left empty and derelict. It became dangerous to even set foot on the island. However, the uninhabited island was opened to tourism in 2009. Photograph by Wikipedia user Hisagi.

7. Fort Carroll Island

In 1847, the U.S. military built Fort Carroll to protect Baltimore right in the middle of the Patapsco River. The site was selected because experience showed that a defensive fort built too close to a city created more problems than it solved. The artificial island was built under the supervision of a young Robert E. Lee, who also designed the island's hexagonal shape. The fort was still incomplete by the time the Civil War began. Construction was halted, and by the time the war was over, the facility's insufficiency became obvious. The fort was modernized, but not in time to be of much use during the Spanish-American War. Every time the fort was slowly modernized, it became obsolete again. By 1921, the army had abandoned Fort Carroll for good. The island was sold to a private developer in 1958, but various plans to use it proved too difficult and expensive to carry out. The fort remains, though slowly crumbling into ruin. Photograph by Wikipedia user Acroterion.

8. Lazzaretto Nuovo

Lazzaretto Nuovo is an island situated at the entrance of the lagoon that envelops Venice, Italy. It was a monastery in medieval times, then in 1468 was designated as a quarantine area for any ships approaching Venice, to protect the city from the plague. This continued until the 18th century, when the quarantine facilities were abandoned, and the Lazzeretto Nuovo eventually became a military base. The Italian Army abandoned the site in 1975, and it suffered years of neglect. Then community efforts turned it into a cultural museum site, now supported by the Italian Ministry of Arts and Culture. The island is now open for tourism.

9. Tree Island

Tree Island in the South China Sea is one of the Paracel Islands under disputed ownership. It is administered by China's Hainan Province, but like the other Paracel Islands, is claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan as well. Tourists can visit the island with permission, but the only inhabitants are military troops who are stationed there temporarily.

10. Palmyra Atoll

Palmyra Atoll is 1,000 miles south of Hawaii, and is a territory owned by the United States. However, as isolated as it is, it is officially uninhabited and unorganized. The U.S. military built an airstrip there during World War II, which has fallen into ruin. The atoll now is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife agency, with the exception of Cooper Island, which is owned by the Nature Conservancy. Palmyra Atoll was the setting for a double murder in 1974 which became the basis for the novel and then miniseries called And the Sea Will Tell.

If you want to buy an island for yourself, there are real estate agents who specialize in such deals. And there are plenty of islands for sale -just make sure you find out why it is uninhabited or for sale before you close the deal!

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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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iStock

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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