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Last Call with Michael Stusser

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Hello again! Michael Stusser, here, with my final day of Blogstery!

stusser-lincoln-.jpg Several notables bit the dust on this day in history: Robert E. Lee in 1870, country crooner John Denver in 1997 (note to self: never fly experimental planes solo"¦), and the only man to ever score 100 points in a pro basketball game, Wilt "The Stilt" Chamberlain, who, in 1999, died at the age of 63. Our recently deceased friend Luciano Pavarotti was born on this day in 1935 (RIP big fella). A few years earlier (1609), the children's ditty "Three Blind Mice" was published in London, scaring the hell out of kids everywhere for the next 500 years. Speaking of rats, Howard Stern's radio show premiered in New York on this day in 1992, and the airwaves have never been as pleasant. In 1973, Juan Peron was elected president of Argentina (bringing his lovely and equally brilliant wife to prominence), and a slightly less suave president made headlines on this day in 1960 "“ when Nikita Khrushchev famously slammed his shoe at the United Nations General Assembly (he may have been upset by a Philippine delegate's comment about the Ruskies "swallowing up Eastern Europe," or there may have been a cockroach on the table). That's one way to get our attention. Another is to do something truly worthy of historical note, which brings us to today's Dead Guy Interview:

On October 12, 1504, Queen Isabella I of Spain signed her last testament. More than a "last will and testament" kinda thing, this particular document (famously illustrated in Rosales's painting now residing in the Madrid Museum laid out Queenie's ideas for the protection of American Indians (shame she didn't attempt to protect other minority groups under her rule) and Spain's mission in Africa (one many tribes felt should be left to those who were born there"¦). Too little too late, perhaps, but an effort to leave a lasting legacy "“ like Oprah, "˜cept with an iron tiara.

And with that, I give you a conversation with Queen Isabella . For more in-depth interviews, you'll have to buy my book - but it'll be worth it, or I'll give you a money-back guarantee. (Not valid in lower 48 states or upper two. Terms of guarantee may vary. Offer only applies to books other than this one. Author is insane, has no official affiliation with mental_floss and cannot be held accountable for his claims or actions.)

Have a great day "“ and thanks for hanging with me this week. For more info on the book (including some wacky audio interviews with dead guys and gals), hit my MySpace page, or shoot me an e-mail on my website."¦

Michael A. Stusser

Read the interview after the jump...


Queen Isabella I (Apr 22, 1451-Nov 26, 1504)

51hxFy7FRnL._SS500_1.jpgIsabella the Catholic, along with hubby Ferdinand, reigned over not one kingdom - but two "“ two, two kingdoms in one! Wearing the crown jewels proudly for Spain, she co-ruled the Castile (land of castles) from 1474 "“1504 as well as Aragon (1479-1504). Twice the land-mass, twice the cash flow!

Isabella's father, John II, died when she was only three, and she was raised under the slightly obsessive eye of her mother (also named Isabella, of Portugal). At the tender age of 13, Izzy was brought to her half-brother's court (King Henry IV), so the teen could be watched like a hawk (and not sneak out to the mall).

There was plenty of opposition to Henry, including a movement to replace his rule with Isabella's younger brother Alfonso. As so often happens in history, they put an end to the squabbling in an efficient manner, poisoning Alfonso in 1468. (Note to self: don't drink the water!) Rebellious nobles then offered the crown to Isabella, but she refused, instead becoming Henry's heiress. Henry died in 1474, and, after a nasty civil war of succession, Isabella was recognized as Queen of Castile. After some speed-dating, she married Ferdinand II of Aragon, and they ruled the two territories for thirty-five years. Together they were known as the Catholic Kings, and united the principle Spanish kingdoms.

Beginning in 1480, the dynamic duo also cleaned Spain out of its large Muslim and Jewish populations through the Spanish Inquisition, forcing anyone who didn't agree with Christianity to flee, convert or be tried by the Supreme Council of the Inquisition (Suprema) "“ a kangaroo Catholic court with a swift guilty verdict and a penchant for torture as punishment.

Isabella, along with Ferdinand, made Spain into an empire in the New World, extending their rule (and Christianity) overseas with the help of a chap named Christopher Columbus who they funded in 1492.

MS: A blonde haired, blue-eyed heiress of Castile. Bet you were popular.

QI: By the time I was 18, I already had three marriage proposals on the table.

MS: Was that a good thing?

QI: Well the French candidate was out immediately. Bad breath. The boy from Aragon was sweet, and it was between him and the Portuguese fella, who was actually a King!

MS: Tough choice.

QI: I had help. My pack of advisors narrowed it down to Alfonso V (King of Portugal) and Ferdinand of Aragon. My half-brother (Henry) lobbied hard for Alfonso, but I went with Ferd.

MS: Yes, married to Ferdinand V "The Catholic" of Spain, on October 19, 1469.

QI: He was quite the Renaissance prince. Studied Latin and history and music. And he could dance, ooh!

MS: Henry didn't approve of the marriage.

QI: He hated the Portuguese. Mainly the food "“ gave him gas - but Portuguese people too.

MS: Yours was the only queenship in the fifteenth century. Is it difficult to be Queen?

QI: Not particularly, no. Choosing the right tiara can be a challenge, but, otherwise, I used my femininity to my advantage. I'd play the "dutiful wife" at public gatherings, hanging off Ferdinand's arm, giving him kisses, mending his robes. People love royal couples "“ just look at Prince Charles and Diana.

MS: Now, you and Ferdinand had an interesting ruling arrangement.

QI: We kept our kingdoms quite separate. I made all final decisions in regard to Castile, and Ferdinand was the go-to-guy in Aragon.

MS: Talk about separate bedrooms!

QI: We laid it all out in the royal pre-nup. Each kingdom had separate parliaments, independent courts, as well as our own tax and monetary systems.

MS: Was there some sort of problem?

QI: No. Heavens no. It's just how we rolled. Kinda like when Bill and Hillary were in office, but in my case I was recognized as a co-ruler.

MS: Who did the dishes?

QI: You must be joking.

MS: I am, your highness. Was there any division of labor?

QI: I dealt more with the government bureaucracy and the justice department. My husband liked to dabble in foreign affairs, taking over other countries, that sort of thing.

MS: You guys had a nice catch phrase, "Tanto monta, monta tanto "“ Isabel como Fernando." What the hell does that mean?

QI: "As much as the one is worth, so much is the other "“ Isabella as Fernando."

MS: I need a tissue.

QI: Don't get too choked up. I ruled with an iron fist when I needed to.

MS: Yeah, I was getting to that. You kicked out the Jews, took over Granada -

QI: Reclaimed Granada from eight centuries of Moorish domination, dear man.

MS: Forced the Muslims to convert or leave the country. Anything I'm leaving out?

QI: I'd like to go on record as saying that my interest in religious reform was a genuine concern for the Christian spiritual life "“ and afterlife "“of my citizens. I was also quite a patron of the arts, if anyone cares.

MS: Well the Spanish Inquisition was a little harsh, yer highness.

QI: We are talking about religious minorities who had an opportunity to reform, or vacation elsewhere.

MS: You may have gotten religious uniformity out of the deal, but there were some nasty trials, not to mention burning folks at the stake. That's not gonna look good on the travel brochure.

QI: Next question.

MS: How'd Columbus get you to sponsor his voyage, anyway?

QI: Christopher was a charming fellow, very cultured. In addition, when he discovered new lands, they became property of Castile. I liked the beachfront property.

MS: Oh. Well that is a good deal. He also looted tons of gold and silver and precious gems, leading to the Spanish Golden Age.

QI: A girl needs her jewelry. And since I'm using this interview to enhance my long-term reputation "“

MS: Please tell me you're not promoting a movie version of your life.

QI: No, no. Though my favorite portrayal was by Sigourney Weaver. What I was getting at was that I think it should be known that when Columbus brought Native Americans back to Spain - against their will - I had the funny little people returned and freed.

MS: You kept all the gems and art though.

QI: I am about through with you.

MS: Let's talk briefly about succession. Long term, you tried to bond the Spanish crown with other rulers in Europe. How'd that turn out?

QI: We had Juan, our Crown Prince, married off to Margaret of Austria.

MS: Good hook up with the Habsburgs!

QI: Then our oldest daughter, Isabelle, married Manuel I "“

MS: Portugal's in the house!

QI: And Juana married Philip, a nice boy, also a Habsburg prince.

MS: Well then everything turned out smashing!

QI: No, you fool, it did not. Isabella died in childbirth, her son died at two"¦

MS: Oh, dear.

QI: And Juan passed soon after his marriage.

MS: Yeah, but at least you still had your daughter Juana the Mad ("˜la loca). I mean, she married a guy named Philip the Handsome!

QI: Let's just say crazy and handsome don't mix.

MS: Tell me about it! My wife's crazy!

QI: I wish to be with Ferd, now. This interview is finished.

MS: Where's the love, Queenie Love?

The Dead Guy Interviews

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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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]