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Which ancient form of execution would you least prefer?

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Having touched briefly upon the lamentable scouring-to-death of Bibiana, patron saint of hangover cures, we promised to elaborate further on this method of execution, and famous folk who have endured it. Unfortunately, there weren't all that many famous people to be found: besides Jesus, who was scourged (but not to death) by Pilate, other scourgees include little-known martyrs like Jeremiah of Cordoba, executed in 851 by the Islamic rulers of his Spanish town for denouncing Muhammad in public. (Not exactly a household name, Jeremiah of Cordoba.) So we thought we'd expand our survey to include celebrity victims of keelhauling and drawing and quartering, and then promptly got sidetracked by the sheer multitude of elaborate, creative and horrible methods of execution thought up by our venerable forefathers (and mothers). Which got us to thinking: which would be the worst? Tell us what you think:

"¢ Being scourged. For those of you who missed the memo, scourging is like whipping with a nasty twist: the whip has between three and nine ends (or "flays"), which often have nasty things like metal spikes sewn into them. (For you etymology geeks, "scourge" comes from the Italian scoriada, ultimately from the Latin: excoriare = "to flay" and corium = "skin".)
"¢ Being buried alive. A punishment exacted by Romans upon Vestal Virgins who had broken their vows. They were tossed into tombs with a tiny bit of bread and water, to give the goddess Vesta a better opportunity to save them, if she wanted to.
Keelhauling. Given that this is uttered in nearly every sentence bespoke by movie pirates, precious few realize how nasty a punishment it really is. This is the least ancient of the tortures covered here -- the Dutch navy officially sanctioned it in 1560 and banned it in 1853. Naughty sailors were tied to a rope that looped beneath the vessel, thrown overboard on one side, and dragged under the ship's keel. As the hull was often covered in barnacles, you can imagine it wasn't a pleasant ride.

More unpleasantness after the jump ...

"¢ In the Netherlands, evisceration was considered apt punishment for criminals guilty of regicide, and consisted of removal of the vital organs through the abdomen. The English, on the other hand, didn't stop at mere disembowelment; for those unfortunates convicted of treason in the commonwealth, this was only the beginning -- then you lost your head, and the rest of you was cut into four pieces -- popularly known as "drawing and quartering."
Death by a thousand cuts, which is pretty much exactly as it sounds, and was popular in China from as early as the Song Dynasty (905-1279) until the turn of the twentieth century. It was abolished in 1905 after it became a Western symbol of the brutality of the Chinese penal system (and something of a PR problem).
"¢ The brazen bull. We swear, we're not making this up; only the ancient Greeks could have devised a torture so diabolical. Metalworkers fashioned a hollowed-out, brass statue of a bull, just large enough to fit a person -- er, victim -- inside. Once occupied, a fire was lit underneath, slow-roasting the tenant into oblivion. Inside the bull's head was a complex system of tubes and stops which converted the prisoner's screams into sounds like the bellowing of an infuriated ox. (I think this one gets my vote!)
"¢ Another Roman favorite: being rolled downhill in a spiked barrel.
Snake pit! Naughty folk were thrown in during the (apparently torture-happy) Song Dynasty in China (905-ish) and the Europeans also used it now and again, for instance in dealing with captured Viking warlord Ragnar Lodbrok in 865.
"¢ This Persian method of execution takes the prize for weird: scaphism involves force-feeding the convicted, then leaving them tied up in the sun for the bugs to get 'em. It's not the bugs that kill you, however, so much as the gangrene and septic shock that their presence in your system invites, as well as old friends dehydration and starvation. On second thought, maybe this one gets my vote -- it can take weeks to finally kick it.

There are lots more nasty ways to be capitally punished out there -- but these are our (least) favorite. Next time, we'll delve into the realm of fiction: our top ways to be killed in a horror movie.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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iStock
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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