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Fake Your Way Through a Conversation About: St. Augustine

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Name Dropping: Saint Augustine (Saint Uh-GUSS-tin if you're trying to impress people; St. AWW-guh-steen if you're talking about the town in Florida): (354-430). The most important Christian theologian ever, except for St. Paul, whose thoughts on God ended up filling out the latter half of the New Testament. Augustine didn't get so lucky—but he still gets read by anyone seriously studying the Christian understanding of God.

When to Drop Your Knowledge: Adds heft to your religion debates. But more importantly: Augustine authored one of the greatest pick-up lines in history, which works today just as nicely as it worked in CE 400.

Born in Africa (in what is now Algeria), Augustine was raised a Christian but left behind the blessed life when he began attending school in Carthage, which was sort of the fourth century's South Padre Island. In his youth, Augustine fathered an illegitimate son, but by the age of 21, he began to get serious about spirituality. He undertook a deep and serious study of Philosophy, Theology, and religion while teaching school in Milan—and then, on Easter Day in the year 387, Augustine was baptized a Christian. The Church would never be the same.

A mere eight years after his conversion, he was Bishop of Hippo (the Algerian city, not the Hungry Hungry board game icon), a position he held for the rest of his career. Although said to be an unusually good preacher—he made his outlandishly complicated theology comprehensible to a lay audience better than anyone has since—Augustine made his real mark with his writing. Confessions, a memoir-cum-Christian-apologia, is required reading for Catholic and Protestant seminarians alike. On the Trinity did more to define the Christian understanding of the Trinity than any Church Council. And City of God, which we recommend reading if you have seven or eight free years, is a sprawling and beautiful defense of Christianity against paganism that is so incredibly and utterly long that many people have converted to Christianity just so they wouldn't have to keep reading it.

From the beginning, the Catholic Church embraced Augustine's work. But his radical emphasis on grace as the means to salvation would later inspire the likes of Martin Luther and John Calvin when they were asserting that faith alone leads to heaven. So, basically, everyone loved Augustine. Except of course the Manicheans, whom he helped destroy.

Fan_Catechism.jpgWait, Who Were the Manicheans?
Pop Quiz: What's the name of the religious sect founded by a charismatic fellow who believed in baptism and ended up getting crucified? Why, Manichaeism, of course. Founded in the 3rd century by a Persian named Mani who was eventually crucified for his beliefs, Manichaeism stressed the duality of good and evil and claimed to have successfully synthesized all the world's major religions. Although Manichaeism survived in Turkey and the Middle East until after 1000 CE, it was eventually overtaken by Islam and Christianity. We're just grateful Mel Gibson isn't a Manichean, because as gory as his "Passion" was, Mani's story was even worse: After being crucified in 276 by a Persian Emperor, Mani's body was flayed, gutted, stuffed, and hung up at the city gates as a warning to his followers.

Because Augustine's work was immediately considered so significant, a lot of his writing has survived—about 5,000,000 words, in fact. (That's approximately 100 of these books.)

There's a pervasive rumor that St. Augustine invented the phrase "missionary position." This is simply untrue. (However, there are vague statements in Augustine's writing that imply he believed the missionary position was the least sinful.) So where did the phrase "Missionary Position" come from? Its first use appears to have been in about 1969—probably by some counterculture kids who were ridiculing the position as boring and prudish.

Augustine is called one of the "Four Great Fathers of the Latin Church," but that's a little like saying that all four Beatles were created equal. Of the Four Fathers (the other three are the less-great and less-famous Jerome, Ambrose, and Gregory the Great), Augustine's importance far outstrips the others. He's Paul and John—so Augustine's the only fourth-century name you need to drop.

Augustine is so important that his mom got sainted (she's St. Monica), mostly for doing such an excellent job raising him. Augustine's dad, on the other hand, is not a saint. He is remembered primarily for cheating on St. Monica.

And finally, the pick-up line! In his memoir Confessions, Augustine recounts that he would pray, "Lord, make me chaste—but not yet." As Augustine well knew, this works great as a pick-up line. Nothing makes someone feel special like ripping off your habit or priestly collar and saying, "Lord, make me chaste—but not yet."

Fake your way through any conversation. All you need is Cocktail Party Cheet Sheets, the mental_floss book by John Green.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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