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7 Foods That Have Led to War

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As authors Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett mused in Good Omens, "civilization is 24 hours and two meals away from barbarism.” Human history is indeed filled with moments of violence that broke out because groups of people found themselves running on empty. Some scholars even argue that human warfare itself may have evolved alongside our move from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle into an agricultural one, given that any growing population (even a prehistoric one) will likely strain its available resources sooner or later.

Whether the cause of conflict was threats to a nation’s entire grain supply or simply the loss of a lone pig, these foods all ended up in the same place throughout history: smack in the middle of war.


Prior to the Pastry War, a.k.a. the First Franco-Mexican War, tensions were high in the new Mexican republic as competing leadership factions, European nationals, and just about everybody else struggled for a better place in the new order. Clashes in the street reportedly destroyed the bakery of one French chef, and one thing led to another until the French government demanded 600,000 pesos as reparations for his losses and other French businesses that had been destroyed. King Louis-Phillippe was already miffed at Mexico over the matter of un-repaid loans, so he allowed these pastries to be the ones that broke the camel’s back. He dispatched his fleet to Veracruz, and kicked off what would be a three-month conflict between the countries from 1838 to 1839.


World War II took an enormous toll on the stability, economics, and resources of French Indochina, and was one of several major factors (including colonial occupation and unseasonable weather) leading to the Vietnamese Famine of 1945. As war was waging in Southeast Asia, some regions of Vietnam had rice surpluses, but the effects of the war made transportation between regions much more difficult. Meanwhile, both the French and the Japanese were more concerned about fighting then averting famine, with the French being accused of storing harvests past the point of edibility.

The scarcity of the regional staple crop caused physical and financial “rice war” struggles throughout the region, drove many (understandably) angry Vietnamese peasants to foment rebellion and seek independence, and led into the almost eight-year First Indochina War. Current estimates of the number of north Vietnamese lives lost during the 1945 famine are typically between one and two million.



Often enough, reasons given for the eruption of a war will involve some minute detail or other that leaders have chosen for their "breaking point." In the case of the Pig War, an 1859 conflict between British and American forces on the West Coast of what's now Washington state, the "shot heard round the world" was fired at one very special porker.

Also called the Pig Episode and the San Juan Boundary Dispute, the confrontation occurred at the tail end of the period in which the U.K. and U.S. were expanding into the lumber- (and possibly gold-) rich Pacific Northwest of present-day Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. As the finer points of the border lines were being drawn, the San Juan Islands, located between Vancouver Island and the B.C. mainland, were disputed territory.

With tensions running high, representatives of the British Hudson Bay Company on the small island chain suddenly found themselves living next door to U.S. settlers. When a British pig (worth either $10 or $100, depending which party you asked) started rooting around in a nearby American's garden and was shot for its trespass, both competing powers were ready to throw down. Fortunately, no shots were fired, and there were no casualties—except for the pig.


As age-old staple crops for many millions of people, wheat and other grains have often been the focus of serious conflict when their supplies are threatened or running low. Food Republic points out, for example, that when the broad Roman Empire’s increasing demanding for bread “was leading to social unrest at home,” Roman forces responded by doing “what they do best: they brandished their imperial muscle and took other people’s grains, in this case Egypt’s, to placate their citizens.”

The struggle for access to grain-based food didn’t end there, though, and has followed Western culture throughout history. To name just a few examples: In the spring of 1775 (shortly before the French Revolution would finally erupt), the Kingdom of France was host to an ongoing series of riots referred to as the Flour War, when the price of flour skyrocketed thanks to a combination of poor harvests and new government trade policies.

In 1917, when Russia’s “average working woman was spending 40 hours per week” in bread lines, groups of such sick-and-tired women kicked off riots that quickly grew to over 100,000 people, and which led to the country’s first of two revolutions that year.

Conflict over bread and grain continues today, and was a perhaps lesser-known factor in the recent Arab Spring. Noting that Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco are the world’s absolute largest wheat importers, Salon explains that the movement “started in Tunisia when rising food prices, high unemployment, and a widening gap between rich and poor triggered deadly riots and finally the flight of the country’s autocratic ruler Zine Ben Ali,” whose last act as ruler (“too little too late,” Salon says) was “a vow to reduce the price of sugar, milk, and bread.” And with wheat and corn prices almost doubling through 2010 and 2011, “it was not just the standard of living of the [region’s] poor that was threatened, but their very lives as climate-change driven food prices triggered political violence.”


Almandine viaWikimedia Commons// CC 3.0

After the partitioning of Korea, questions remained about the maritime boundary between the two countries—a matter of significant concern in a region that has, in recent years, fostered increasing competition and conflict for the seafood on which it relies. In particular, extremely valuable blue crabs can be found along this disputed line, and have sparked a number of clashes [PDF] between North and South Korea.


When many of us Yanks think of our split from Britain in the Revolutionary War and the foods that spurred it, tea (and a certain party with it) often comes to mind. When it comes to clashing over edible resources, though, England, France, and the soon-to-be U.S.A. were much more concerned about the fate of two other commodities: spice and sugar. As one financial advising firm explained to Business Insider:

From a European perspective the U.S. revolt was a sideshow to a larger British/French conflict fought mainly over the agriculturally rich East and West Indies trade routes. While the British lost to the colonists at Yorktown, the Royal Navy's victory over a French [and] Spanish fleet at the Battle of the Saintes was bigger news at home as it secured [sugar-rich] Jamaica as a British possession.


Salt Riot on Red Square, Ernest Lissner via Wikimedia Commons//Public Domain

Frankly, salt has been a source of conflict among humans for about as long as we’ve been utilizing it. Trouble tends to arise whenever one group (usually a ruling and/or powerful one) puts strain on another group’s access to this vital resource—something we’ve relied on through the millennia for preserving our food, treating our ailments, and balancing our bodily fluids.

There was the Salt War of 1482-84, for example, involving the duke of Ferrara, salt mining, and the Papal forces of Sixtus IV, and also the Salt War of 1540, involving the rightly fed-up denizens of Perugia, a new salt tax, and the Papal forces of Paul III. In 1648, too, the people of Moscow responded to Tsar Alexei I’s new universal salt tax with days of violent uprising.

Of course, as Mohandas Gandhi and co.’s famous Salt March across India proved, the struggle for fair access to salt—or anything else, for that matter—doesn’t always have to get rough.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]