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5 Fictional Countries Where the U.S. Army is Trained to Fight

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During World War II, the Allies famously tricked Hitler into believing that the First United States Army Group would invade France at Pas-de-Calais. The real invasion, of course, came at Normandy, and the First United States Army Group did not take part—mostly because it didn’t actually exist.

Fake military units aren’t the only thing the military is good at inventing. Sometimes it invents entire nations. When the U.S. Army trains for battle, it strives for immersion and realism. To help prepare soldiers for the overwhelming nature of invading a country where the language is unknown and the culture is mostly alien, the U.S. Army invents fully realized countries, from international dynamics to currency. Here are a few fake countries where the United States is prepared to fight.

1. The People’s Republic of Pineland

Image credit: U.S. Army

Invaders from the north beset the country of Pineland, located on the continent of Atlantica. There have been reports of a local strongman named Jose Cuervo, who is known to capture and torture local guerrilla fighters, and there is general discord among the local militias. Wanted terrorist Keith Mohammed is noted to be in the area. Because Pineland has been a stalwart ally of the United States—fighting alongside us during World Wars I and II, Korea, and Iraq—a U.S. Army Special Forces “A-Team” (ODA-914) has infiltrated the country to organize the guerrilla forces into a formidable army.

Atlantica itself has an interesting history.

It’s a bit over a thousand miles east of North America, and was first discovered by Saladero Indians of Venezuela. Eric the Great settled the land in 1342, and the English, Spanish, and French would arrive during the Age of Discovery. Ultimately, England would conquer the continent and divide it into three distinct territories: North Atlantica, Appalachia, and Pineland. Unlike the America-friendly Pineland, the United Provinces of Atlantica (previously: North Atlantica) would eventually side with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The region would seem to be marked by instability and unrest.

All of this is part of Robin Sage, the final phase of Special Forces training, where soldiers put their highly specialized training to the test. Those who succeed will earn the right to wear the coveted green beret. Based on reports of the exercise, the exact conditions of the war simulation seem to vary, reflecting actual, ongoing U.S. Army Special Forces missions and the lessons learned from conflicts around the world. And Pineland is serious business. The training area is 4,500 square miles across ten counties. Local communities are integrated into the mission. It has a flag (yellow, gray, and red, with LIBERTY printed at the top, and 1870 on the bottom), a national anthem (“This is the land of the tall pine tree / where all of us used to live so free...”) and a currency (the don, denoted by orange and yellow bills that resemble Monopoly money, and signed by Seymour Bombs). And yes, there is a real dollar-to-don exchange rate.

Notably, a precursor to Robin Sage was fought not in Pineland, but in Erehwon, with Special Forces pitted against the Erehwonian Army. Erehwon, of course, is “nowhere” spelled backward.

2. The Island of Aragon

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The Island of Aragon is roughly six hundred miles east of Atlantica, and is divided into three distinct nations: People’s Democratic Republic of Acadia, the Republic of Cortina, and the Republic of Victoria. Cortina is rich in natural resources and vital to U.S. interests, but is highly unstable due to political corruption, ethnic strife, and right wing insurgencies. The Cortina Liberation Front, a domestic terrorist organization, is supported by the PDRA and has recently stepped up its violence. Their goal is to overthrow the Cortina government. The United States isn’t going to let that happen. Joint Task Force Cortina, comprised of conventional land, air, and sea elements, as well as special operations forces, has been sent to the area. They’ve been ordered to help with the counterinsurgency, provide security, and offer humanitarian aid where it’s needed.

This simulated invasion is one scenario used during the three-week field training exercise at the U.S. Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana. Where Robin Sage’s Pineland is designed around twelve-man Special Forces teams, JRTC brings together diverse elements from the whole of the U.S. Army, with units ranging from light infantry to Apache helicopters. Thousands of soldiers train at once on the 100,000-acre facility dubbed “the Box.” It’s one of the most technologically sophisticated training simulations in the military, employing 900 cameras that record everything, real-world sound effects, carefully employed pyrotechnics, and GPS tracking on pretty much everything.

Hundreds of civilians role-play as villagers, acting as mayors and farmers and peddlers at local bazaars. Citizens of the Box broadcast a radio show, print three daily newspapers, and run a nightly news broadcast, all of which reflect the ongoing “war.” The 509th Infantry Regiment (Airborne) acts as the Opposing Force, or op-for. These soldiers live in the field for weeks at a time, eating and sleeping in their camps and villages. Like indigenous forces the military will encounter in the combat zone, the op-for is extraordinarily familiar with their terrain, and knows exactly how to use it to inflict maximum “harm” on soldiers in training. It’s an unfair advantage, but it’s designed to be that way. The goal for soldiers training at JRTC isn’t to win—that’s an almost impossible task—but to learn from their mistakes.

3. Attica

Image credit: U.S. Army/The Economist

The Middle Eastern nation of Attica has seen better days. The radical Islamic Congress of Attica seeks to destabilize the Attican government and install an oppressive theocratic regime. Meanwhile, the Ellisian Army has sent in mechanized elements as precursor to a full invasion. The Islamic Brotherhood for Jihad would like to establish a terrorist base of operations in the region, from which it can launch transnational attacks.

To deal with this, the U.S. Army has been deployed to work alongside Attican security forces to stop the insurgency, secure Attica’s porous borders, strengthen its tenuous state, and deny haven to terrorists. Working against the U.S.-Attican alliance is the Wolf Brigade, an eight-man cyber-warfare cell capable of disrupting communications and networked electronics.

The crisis in Attica is part of the Network Integration Evaluation, a bi-annual exercise at White Sands Missile Range that evaluates military communications hardware in the field. The hostile forces represent al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hezbollah, and the Iranian special operations Quds force. The training simulation is indicative of the kinds of wars the U.S. Army expects to fight in the future—hybrid wars, not against single states, but against multiple, loosely affiliated actors with a common enemy in the United States. The Network Integration Evaluation also puts the U.S. Army’s Warfighter Information Network-Tactical to the test. The WIN-T is a command-and-control system that allows critical information to be sent across the battlefield through such devices as Nett Warrior field-capable smartphones.

4. The People’s Democratic Republic of Krasnovia

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During most of the Cold War, the United States may have known no greater threat than the People’s Democratic Republic of Krasnovia. The threat of war was ever-present. The neighboring Republic of Mojave was a staunch U.S. ally, but a bitter enemy of the Kingdom of Parumphia—a close Krasnovian ally. Tensions were further heightened by the Parumphian Peoples’ Guerrillas, which wanted Parumphia to re-unify with the Krasnovian Motherland. (The nearby Baja Republic remained neutral.) While years were marked by highs and lows and the occasional bullet fired in anger, tensions were most heightened when uranium was found in the Mojave, prompting Krasnovia and Parumphia to mount a joint invasion. The United States intervened, not only to help a partner in the region, but also because there was little doubt what the Krasnovian-Parumphian alliance would use the uranium for: weapons of mass destruction.

The scenarios for war with Krasnovia (“Everyone’s enemy!” and an obvious stand-in for the Soviet Union) varied over the years. Bitter wars were fought at Fort Irwin and the National Training Center in California. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Krasnovia fell as well, to be replaced by breakaway republics presenting a new set of threats in Eurasia.

5. Atropia

Image credit: High Desert Warrior

The Defense Department expects future threats in Eurasia to look a lot like the war in Attica—hybrid, with conventional forces, criminal forces, terrorist forces, and intelligence services working together to topple governments and repel external threats. Such countries as Donovia, Gorgas, Minaria, Atropia, and Ariana are each in some way either a vital U.S. interest or a belligerent state. History suggests that a military confrontation between any of the countries could easily engulf the entire region in total war.

If that were to happen, Gorgas and Atropia would call upon its allies in the West for help—specifically, the United States. Both countries face threats from Donovia, which has seen a surge in regional influence with the rise in oil prices. Gorgas is still reeling from a 2008 war against Donovia, and Atropia’s natural resources keep it at perpetual risk. (Its Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline is highly vulnerable to attack.) Meanwhile, Atropia also faces a threat from Minaria, a relatively weak country with ties to the Donovians. Minaria’s grudge against Atropia comes from a border dispute over Artzak province. (Atropia controls it, though its population consists mostly of ethnic Minarians.)

This simulation is part of “Decisive Action” training now being rolled out by the U.S. Army. The variables in this kind of regional conflict war-game can be shifted, and provide units with experience in everything from stability operations to high-intensity conflict operations.

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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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
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.