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The World's Shortest War

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Wikimedia Commons

Dan Lewis runs the popular daily newsletter Now I Know ("Learn Something New Every Day, By Email"). We've invited him to share some of his stories on mental_floss this week. To subscribe to his daily email, click here.

Off the coast of mainland Tanzania is Zanzibar, now a semi-autonomous archipelago but part of Tanzania proper. In 1890, Zanzibar was a British protectorate, but in 1964, after an uprising, it joined with Tanzania (then “Tanganyika”) to form the modern-day country of the same name.

The uprising which led to Zanzibar’s independence from Britain was not the archipelago’s first. On August 27, 1896, the British Empire and Zanzibar went to war—for forty minutes. Before an hour had elapsed, the Anglo-Zanzibar war was over.

Two days prior, Zanzibar’s Sultan, Hamad bin Thuwaini, died suddenly. His would-be successor, his cousin Khalid bin Bargash (whom many believed poisoned Hamad), was disfavored by the British—the Empire wished for Hamoud bin Muhammad to take Hamadi’s place. And, under a treaty signed a decade earlier, the British Empire had to approve of the successor in order for him to successfully accede to the throne. Khalid refused to seek this approval. This British termed this an act of war, and gave Khalid until 9 a.m. local time on the 27th to cede the throne. Khalid responded by barricading himself in the palace, defended by the palace guards.

As 9 a.m. approached, so did the British forces. With more than 1,000 land troops amassed and five ships—two gunboats and three cruisers—the British forces were formidable. The Sultan countered with 2,800 men of his own, albeit not as well armed or trained; a royal yacht and two other boats (akin to large motorboats); and a quartet of artillery batteries. Thirty minutes before the ultimatum struck, the Sultan sent a message to the British diplomatic point of contact, Basil Cave, stating that he had no intention of ceding his throne and did not believe the British would open fire.  Cave responded by reiterating the ultimatum: step down by 9 a.m. or prepare for a rain of artillery.

And at exactly 9 a.m., the gunships received their orders: fire. Within minutes, the royal palace received the promised ammunition. The Zanzibari royal yacht, the HMS Glasgow, did its best to stave off the attacks by firing its weapons at one of the warships—but by 9:15, the British navy sunk the Glasgow and the two other Zanzibari boats. The attacks on the palace killed or wounded more than 500 Zanzibaris in about a half hour, and Sultan Khalid bin Bargash fled for the German consulate, where he successfully sought asylum.

At 9:40, hostilities ceased and the Sultan’s flag atop the palace came down. By most accounts, this 40-minute war is the shortest in human history.

In the end, Britian placed Hamoud bin Muhammad in the throne, a position he would serve in until his death in 1902. During his British-backed reign, Sultan Hamoud, to his credit, ended slavery on the island.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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iStock
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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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iStock

Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]

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