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Wikimedia Commons

Ruse of War: 6 Sneaky But Brilliant Strategies

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Wikimedia Commons

War can be tricky—especially when done correctly. It's called Ruse of War, the act of clever tactic or deception on the battlefield. Think Trojan Horse, but less ridiculous. (“After a 10-year siege, the Greeks have given up and disappeared and look—they felt so bad they totally left us a present!”)

Here are six commanders who were dealt bad hands, but bluffed and ended up flush. Some of the more ancient accounts are, of course, tough to verify. But even if time has padded these stories into legends, it doesn’t make the tactical strategies any less astounding.

1. Persians Without Noses, a Threat Still Poses.

Around 500 years BC, Darius the Great was sweeping through Asia and Africa, conquering everything. He was spread thin, so revolts popped up everywhere. Darius and his armies were able to stamp them all down, except one: Babylon. Babylon was so well barricaded that Darius, though he sat outside with his armies for a year and a half, couldn’t get in. Enter Persian noble Zopyrus, and his brilliant, disgusting plan to take Babylon.

One morning the Babylonians rose to see the high ranking Persian at their gates, soaked in his own blood, whipped, with his ears and nose hacked off. He screamed that Darius had done this to him for failing to capture their city, and that now his rage was so great he wished to defect and help Babylon defeat the brutal Darius.

And … they totally bought it. Zopyrus had cut off his own nose and ears and arranged his own whipping, all with Darius’ knowledge. Zopyrus Rhinotmetus (no-nose) quickly rose in the ranks of the Babylonian army, and just as quickly weakened the city's defenses. Darius soon recaptured the city, and reportedly festooned Zopyrus with great titles and wealth.

2. The Most Awesome Tea-Partier Ever

In the 3rd century, China was a mess. There were three different kingdoms—the Shu, Wei, and Wu—fighting to gain control over all of China. Chu-ko Liang was a valuable, high ranking official of the Shu people. One of his many responsibilities was to protect the city of Hsi from the oncoming Wei invasion. But he didn’t have enough soldiers to match the Wei onslaught, nor was Hsi fortified enough to wait out a siege. So, Liang got clever.

He opened all the gates of his city. He sent his best soldiers high into the mountains, out of sight. He ordered the people of his town to carry on as normal. Then, as the scouts for the Wei army approached, he climbed to the ramparts of the wall, burned some incense, had tea and played his lute. The Wei knew Liang was no idiot, in fact he had a reputation for being quite slippery. They suspected a trap, and went around the city, leaving it unharmed. As they skirted the town, they walked into the ambush Liang had previously set in the mountains, and were defeated.

3. Cowards at Cowpens

Militia men of the American Revolution weren’t trained soldiers. They were farmers and family men called to take up arms against the British. They were renowned for, well … not knowing what they were doing and running away a lot. At the Battle of Cowpens, Colonel Dan Morgan used this inglorious reputation to kick some Redcoat pantaloons.

Morgan’s regiments weren’t made up only of hapless militia men. He also had trained soldiers and riflemen. Taking position on and around a small hill at the border of South and North Carolina, Morgan put a line of trained shooters in front of a ragtag line of militia men. The British began a front assault, and were driven back by the sharpshooters, who then got up and ran behind the hill. The British charged again, this time against the scraggly militia men. The militia men appeared extremely weak when they each only fired two rounds, turned and ran. Bolstered by the retreat of the ill-trained American cowards, the British charged. Their line lost its cohesion on the hill, and they ran straight into the waiting fire of all the rest of Morgan’s men, including the ones that had gone around the back of the British. The British premature belief that they were winning led to them being completely enveloped by enemy fire, with over 900 Redcoats killed or captured.


To defend their homeland, Gideon the Israelite raised a volunteer army of 32,000 to battle the Midianites (interlopers who were trying to move into Israelite turf) according to the Biblical account. But he only needed 10,000. Actually, the most powerful part of his ruse required significantly less. Gideon had 300 of his soldiers surround the Midianite’s valley encampment on three sides, every side but the east (that’s where he put the other 9700, waiting in ambush). He equipped them with hundreds of horns (the kind individual armies sounded before charging), torches, and incendiary pots. Then late at night, all at once, he had the 300 blow the war trumpets, light the torches, hurl the pots into the encampment and scream, “'A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” The Midianites had no idea how many violent religious zealots were descending on them, but if the horns were any indication, it was all of them. They panicked and ran to the only side of the valley without torches and terror, the east. There they were promptly slaughtered by soldiers, who were waiting with their swords for the Lord and Gideon. 

5. Bore Them to Death

Philip II of Macedon had conquered enough ground by 338 BC to establish the state of Macedonia. Many parts of the newly conquered kingdom didn’t like being conquered, particularly Athens and Thebes, which raised 50,000 rebels to fight off Philip’s 32,000 trained soldiers at the Battle of Chaeronea. Philip was outnumbered, but his men were professionals, and the rebels were angry countrymen spoiling for a fight.

The first thing Philip did was nothing. He took an interminable time to set up his lines for the battle as the rebels waited for him to make the first move. Meanwhile they stood, their bloodlust cooling as their skin baked in the sun. Then the battle began. The rebels had staked out a highly desirable position that Philip needed to remove them from. So he sent his men into battle, and then had them retreat almost immediately, as if unable to bear the rebel attack. The rebels chased them back to their “line,” not noticing that line was slowly moving, and so were they. Soon they were drawn completely away from the high ground they’d occupied. Philip kept doing this until the rebels were exhausted, bereft of spirit, and in open air. His trained soldiers then quickly stopped playing with their food and killed half the rebel army.

6. “P’ang Chuan Dies Under This Tree.”

Meanwhile in 4th century BC China,  the Han dynasty was under attack. The King of Ch’i sent an army westward to help the Han army resist the Wei. It wasn’t considered that much of a help. The Ch’i had a reputation for being total whiny pantywaists and for desertion, weakness, and all around lameness. When the commander of the Wei army, P’ang Chuang, heard they were coming, he went home for a vacation.

This unit of Ch’i was a little different, though. Marching with them as an advisor was Sun Pin, a descendant of Sun-Tzu. You might have heard of Sun-Tzu—he wrote a little book called The Art of War, the oldest, and arguably the most brilliant, military treatise in the world. Like Dan Morgan, Sun Pin knew that a bad reputation can be a good thing. The Wei believed the Ch’i army was full of weaklings who got sick or died or deserted. So Sun Pin gratified that belief. Each night the army marched, they lit fewer and fewer campfires. When the Wei saw that the Ch’i had lost half their pathetic army, they smugly settled on a quick direct attack, using only light infantry.

The legend goes, when the Ch’i set up their ambush, the spring for their trap was a message written on a tree: “P’ang Chuan Dies Under This Tree.” P’ang Chuan was called to the tree in the dark, and lit a torch to read it. This triggered a hailstorm of arrows from the Ch’i, an onslaught that the Wei were not prepared to handle. P’ang Chuan slit his own throat under the tree in his defeat. 

This article was sourced mainly from Duncan & Nofi's Book, Victory and Deceit.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.