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11 Fictional Wars and Why They're Fighting Them

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Growing up, it was just understood that of course G.I. Joe was at war with Cobra, and obviously the Autobots needed to defeat the Decepticons. The Foot Clan? Kill 'em all and let Krang sort 'em out. But in our youthful bloodlust, rarely did we bother asking why these guys were fighting in the first place. How did these wars begin and what did the villainous armies have planned? Wonder no longer. Here are 11 fictional wars and why they’re fighting them.

1. G.I. Joe vs. Cobra

We know that G.I. Joe is “the codename of America’s daring, highly trained special mission force” and that Cobra is a “ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world.” To understand Cobra’s motivation, however, we should examine what happened when they did rule the world. In the first season episode “Worlds Without End,” members of the Joe team are sent to a parallel dimension where Cobra won a swift victory.

Here is what we learned: Cobra established a government with a dual-headed executive branch, with Cobra Commander and Destro providing checks and balances against each other. As far as presumed authoritarian states go, this isn’t too bad, and might guard against any North Korea-like excesses. Cobra’s state has a law enforcement arm and domestic watch-lists only a few shades removed from what you experience when traveling through T.S.A. checkpoints. There is a welfare system in place, with Cobra providing food to the homeless. The infrastructure of Washington D.C. has been preserved with a few Cobra flourishes (e.g. Cobra Commander now sits in the Lincoln Memorial), and notably, Cobra Commander and Destro have replaced Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt respectively. Cobra has indeed conquered the Earth, and has totally defeated the Joe insurgents.

At one point, the Joes from “our” dimension observe what they call a slave labor camp, though it’s impossible to say for certain without more information. They may have simply spotted a program run by the (very real) Correctional Corporation of America or some variant of the prisons at Guantanamo Bay. For what it’s worth, the Joes were only in the Cobra-led dimension for a few hours before recklessly engaging Cobra forces over the National Mall, sending one Cobra plane crashing into the U.S. Botanic Garden and another into the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.

2. Autobots vs. Decepticons

Claster Television

The comics are all over the place on this one. The IDW continuity is determined to push this weird backstory of a corrupt senate, slave labor, and gladiators, and how no side can really claim to be the “good guys.” (To save you the trouble of googling it, the upshot is that Megatron was a poet-slave-gladiator-turned-revolutionary who gets a little carried away). The cartoon, however, for all its faults, seemed to really nail the reason for the war between the Autobots and Decepticons: resources.

Much like Earth, Cybertron, home planet of the Transformers, only has so many natural resources. Humans are a young species and are relatively ahead of the resource curve. We’ll eventually hit peak oil, but (hopefully) by that time we’ll have really mastered alternative forms of energy. Transformers, though, are a very old race, and single generations can live for millions of years. They’ve used up the great majority of their planet’s resources and, because their planet lacks a star to orbit, cannot take advantage of solar power. Transformers, in other words, isn’t the story of political discord and revolution—it’s an apocalyptic tale about what happens when our resources dry up.

And what happens isn’t pretty. The cartoon makes it pretty clear that two schools of thought emerged from this energy problem. You have the Decepticons, who are perfectly willing to invade other planets and steal their energy, and the Autobots, who want to trade peacefully for energy.

The Great War naturally results. On Cybertron, the two sides fight it out for what’s left and on Earth and elsewhere, the Autobots are determined to stop the Decepticons who disrupt free trade. The Decepticons’ gripe is that trade is slow and everyone else in the universe is primitive. Why not just steal a whole bunch of oil and be done with it? An obvious comparison is the killing of whales in the 19th century to acquire spermaceti. In this example, we’re the whales.

3. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles vs. Foot Clan

Warner Bros

The Ninja Turtles aren’t technically an army, but more of a commando cell. Still, the Foot Clan more than makes up the difference.

The Foot Clan is a global, centuries-old order of ninjas. In the 1960s, two members had a falling out. Oroku Saki framed Hamato Yoshi of the attempted murder of their sensei. The latter was banished from Japan and ended up living in the sewers of New York City. Oroku Saki, meanwhile, took charge of the Foot Clan and led them into the larceny business. (What else are you going to do with an army of ninjas?)

Here's what happens next: 1. Oroku Saki strikes a deal with an alien being from Dimension X who is in possession of highly advanced technology. 2. Oroku Saki, who operates under the name Shredder, attempts to murder his old foe not with a throwing star, sword, bow and arrow, or blow dart, but with some sort of toxic goo. 3. Hamato Yoshi is mutated into a giant rat. 4. His four pet turtles are mutated into giant humanoids.

Also, members of the Foot Clan are replaced with robots.

Why are they fighting? Pretty easy. On one side you have Shredder, who, because of his robots and alien technology, has upped his sights from criminal empire to planetary conquest. On the other side, you have an A-Team type situation: Framed for a crime he didn’t commit, Splinter (née Hamato Yoshi) leads a crack commando unit to fight back. “If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them,” you can recruit the aid of teenage mutant ninja turtles.

4. Hyrule vs. Ganon


Everyone remembers where they were when they discovered the game with the gold cartridge. The Legend of Zelda followed the quest of a boy named Link, whose mission it was to defeat the armies of Ganon, secure pieces of the mythical Triforce, and rescue Princess Zelda.

What was Ganon’s deal, anyway, and why’d he make war on the land of Hyrule? Thankfully, when you’re dealing with evil wizards, you don’t have to muck about in nuance. Ganon wanted to “plunge the World into fear and darkness.” (Because he was an evil wizard, obviously.) To do this, he stole the Triforce of Power. Princess Zelda, meanwhile, somehow broke the Triforce of Wisdom into eight pieces and hid them in monster-infested dungeons throughout the land. She was eventually captured.

5. Eternia vs. the Masters of the Universe


Like those of Ganon, the motivations of Skeletor are pretty straightforward. He wants access to Castle Grayskull, and more importantly, “the power of Grayskull.” Once in possession of that power, he has two objectives: to rule the world (obviously), and to defeat the even more evil Hordak and the subtly named Evil Horde. The cartoon series from the 1980’s never made clear what Skeletor planned to do with Eternia once he conquered it, but seeing as how he and his forces lived in a place called Snake Mountain, and that his head is a skinless yellow skull, the blanks pretty much fill in themselves.

6. Space Pirates vs. Galactic Federation

In Metroid, it is unclear why the Space Pirates insist on warring with the Galactic Federation, though it would seem to be a simple matter of armed rebels not liking the space government. To that end, they’re essentially really evil Browncoats.

Not that the Federation is overly concerned with peace and tranquility, mind you. In Metroid II they deploy Samus Aran to commit genocide against the Metroid species, the latter deemed too dangerous to be allowed to live and thus possibly fall into the hands of the Space Pirates. (Just to emphasize the point, the poor Metroids are sentient and capable of loyalty, as later demonstrated in Super Metroid. The Galactic Federation ordered their total annihilation. Maybe the Space Pirates are the good guys after all.)

7. Humanity vs. Neosapiens

Universal Cartoon Studios

Exosquad, the excellent animated series from the 1990’s, depicts an inter-solar system war between humans and a race of genetically engineered humanoids called Neosapiens.

The conflict began when the Neosapiens, who were designed for—and forced to—work on Mars as slaves, successfully revolted. They quickly conquered Mars, Venus, and Earth, and operated with the philosophy that, as a genetic master race, they had the right to suppress and enslave humanity, their former oppressors.

Exosquad followed humanity’s attempt to retake the inner solar system. The lesson here is if you genetically engineer a superior, successor species to homo sapiens, do not treat them poorly.

8. Arus vs. Planet Doom

World Events Productions

Planet Arus, ruled by Princess Allura, is your standard-issue tranquil planet of peace-loving people. Also, it’s home to a giant space robot constructed of lions and called Voltron. Naturally, then, some very evil race would want to invade and conquer it. No less than Planet Doom set its sights on Arus.

The “why” is pretty straightforward: Planet Doom is part of the Drule Empire, and what good empire doesn’t want just a little more territory? Specifically, King Zarcon, ruler of Planet Doom and a leader (though not the leader) of the empire, made conquest his purpose in life. There are all sorts of parallels to imperial overreach in real life history. Unfortunately, there are no giant lion-constituted space robot parallels. Yet.

9. Cybernet vs. Humanity

Orion Productions

In the Terminator series of films, the U.S. military installs a computer network called Skynet and gives the system control of pretty much all of our most destructive hardware. The idea is to remove human error from the decision chain.

Nobody expected Skynet to become self-aware, but when it happened, humans attempted to pull the plug. This did not make Skynet happy. It fought back in self-defense by launching our nuclear weapons at Russia, triggering a full retaliation and eventually total thermonuclear war and a mountain of human skulls.

10. The Wicked Witches vs. Everybody


Here’s the deal with the Wicked Witches in the land of Oz: They conquered the realm and parceled it amongst themselves. The witches we’re most familiar with—the Wicked Witch of the West and the Wicked Witch of the East—controlled Winkie Country and Munchkin Country, respectively. Things didn’t end well for the latter witch, as a house fell on her head.

The Wicked Witch of the East tried to get her hands on the silver (or maybe ruby!) slippers, but failed and absconded before somebody dropped a house on her, too. That army that guards her castle? Those are Winkies. Why are they working for her? Because the winged monkeys are making them. (The winged monkeys are also how she conquered Winkie Country and repelled the wizard.) But why are the winged monkeys working for the witch? Because she had the Golden Cap, to which the monkeys are enslaved (before Glinda freed them).If you want an army, you’re going to need flying monkeys.

11. Springfield vs. Shelbyville


While neither are technically an army, the residents of Springfield can be pretty intimidating when they’ve lit their torches and taken up pitchforks. Springfield and its neighbor Shelbyville have a worse relationship than Arlen and McMaynerberry.

The discord goes back to 1796, when explorer Shelbyville Manhattan, apparently hoping to disarm the French proverb “Le cousinage est un dangereux voisinage,” wanted to found a town hospitable to the marriage of cousins. Fellow explorer Jebediah Springfield disallowed the practice in his community.

As the Simpsons Wikia explains, “The feud continues til this day, with a group of Shelbyville kids stealing the Springfield Lemon Tree. According to Lisa Simpson, Springfield built a mini-mall that was purposely larger than a mini-mall Shelbyville built. After Shelbyville made the world's largest pizza, Springfield burned their city hall.”

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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.