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DARREN STAPLES/Reuters/Landov

5 Remarkable Things Discovered Under Parking Lots

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DARREN STAPLES/Reuters/Landov

There’s more to the common parking lot than broken beer bottles and fender benders from that guy who was texting. Oceans of asphalt, it seems, are hiding an astonishing trove of archeological treasures.

1. The King of England

In 1485, King Richard III of England was killed during the Battle of Bosworth Field, the last major battle of the War of the Roses. (No English king since Richard has died on the field of battle.) There aren’t a lot of positions in history loftier than Rex Anglorum, so it should give perspective to all of us that Richard’s grave is beneath a parking lot. That’s what archaeologists think, anyway. (Update: It's him!)

During his final battle, Richard led a desperate cavalry charge against Henry Tudor’s men, and didn’t go down without a fight. His last words, after finally being surrounded: “Treason! Treason! Treason!” He was killed with a pollaxe, the fateful swing delivered so powerfully that it crushed his helmet into his skull. After Richard was killed, his body was paraded in the streets until Franciscan friars took him into their care. He was interred at Greyfriars Church in Leicester.

In the five centuries that followed, the location of Greyfriars was lost. Last week, however, archaeologists announced that its ruins had been discovered beneath a parking lot used by Leicester city council functionaries. Excavations and DNA analyses are underway.

2. The Palace of Queen Helena of Adiabene

It turns out the ancient city of Jerusalem was a lot bigger than anyone thought. An archaeological team using ground penetrating radar was surveying an excavation area in the City of David, and at one point encountered, as they describe in their initial report in 2003, “something of large dimensions in the sub-surface.” Which sounds promising, until you read the next sentence: “Or there could be some other source of interference at this point causing this phenomenon.”

Nobody was really sure of what might be there. Nor were they particularly convinced that uprooting a parking lot (where the signal was discovered) was worth the effort. Digging large holes in the ground involves a non-trivial amount of red tape, but curiosity got the better of the archaeologists, and the pickaxes were brandished. They found a palace.

According to Romano-Jewish historian Titus Flavius Josephus, Queen Helena of Adiabene (a kingdom in Assyria, which was part of Mesopotamia and present-day Northern Iraq) converted to Judaism around the year 30 CE. During a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, she discovered the city was plagued with famine. She sent her servants to secure food from Cyprus and Alexandria, and distributed the provisions to the starving people. She later built a palace there.

Around 70 CE, the Romans sacked Jerusalem, ending the First Jewish-Roman War. The palace was destroyed during the onslaught. Eventually, the ruins were forgotten about and replaced, until modernity decided that a parking lot would look great there. Doron Ben-Ami of the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem led the team that discovered Helena’s old home.

3. A Warship from the Texas Navy

When the Texas Revolution broke out in 1835, Texas ponied up for a navy of its own after previously relying on privateers. The revolutionary government bought four schoooners: the Independence, the Brutus, the Liberty, and the Invincible. The mission of this, the First Texas Navy, was to defend the Texas coastline while punching through the Mexican blockade, and to inflict maximum damage on the Mexican navy. (The United States Navy seemed to find all of this a bit annoying, and had minor incidents with the two warring navies.) Though the Republic of Texas won independence after Sam Houston crushed Santa Anna at San Jacinto, cannons continued to thunder in the Gulf of Mexico well into the following year. Ultimately, the Texas fleet was lost.

The second Texas Navy set sail in 1839. Its first steamship-of-war was the Zavala, a two-hundred-foot passenger schooner purchased for $120,000 and refitted for maritime operations. While returning to Galveston following a campaign to help part of the Yucatan Peninsula rebel against Santa Ana, the Zavala was badly damaged in a storm. It made it back to port, but was never restored, and was eventually scuttled.

In 1996, the National Underwater and Marine Agency (which was once a fictional government organization featured in Clive Cussler’s novels, and later founded by Cussler as a real, non-profit organization) announced that it had discovered the Zavala at Bean’s Wharf, in Galveston. It was beneath a parking lot used by workers at a nearby grain elevator. There it remains, marked as a historic site by the Texas State Antiquities Commission.

4. Henry VIII’s Private Chapel

Photo by Dan Rogers, courtesy of the Greenwich Foundation

The Palace of Placentia was built in 1447 and demolished in 1694 to make room for a hospital for injured soldiers. Designed by Christopher Wren, the breathtaking complex still stands today as the Old Royal Naval College, houses the University of Greenwich, and is recognized as a World Heritage Site. But over the two hundred years that followed the palace’s destruction, everyone lost track of the royal chapel, which was never actually razed. As tends to happen, a parking lot somehow ended up on top of the church where Henry VIII married at least two of his wives.

It would have remained lost to a sea of Aston Martins and Mini Coopers had a construction worker in 2006 not turned up some ancient tiles with his bulldozer. Beneath the parking lot, archaeologists discovered not only the Tudor chapel but also stained glass, the vestry, and a cobbled waterfront path.

5. The Canadian Parliament

In 1848, the parliament of the United Province of Canada passed legislation mandating responsible government, which would eventually lead to an independent state. In 1849, an angry mob burned the parliament building to the ground.

The site eventually became a public space ambiguously named “Parliament Square,” and by the 1920s, all connection with the site’s historic past was lost. It wasn’t long before someone pointed to the land and asked, “How many cars do you think we could fit there?” The cradle of Canadian democracy became a parking lot, and where once sat members of parliament now sat Honda Civics.

In 2010, archaeologists ended a twenty-year survey and started digging. Among the relics they’ve turned up so far include a portrait of Queen Victoria and some books.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

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.

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