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10 Jewish Messiah Moments

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Messiah comes from the Hebrew word for "anointed." (It's pronounced ma-shee-ach in that ancient tongue.) In biblical times, it was a fairly workaday concept, referring to anyone chosen by God. David became mashiach (God's anointed king) over Israel after the prophet Samuel poured oil on David's head (depicted above).

In those days there was only a fuzzy picture of the afterlife and no concept of aftertimes. But then the Hebrew prophets began speaking of a future that would be better than the rather shabby present the Israelites were living. Isaiah prophesied that the future rule of Israel would be based on justice. Later, Ezekiel had his vision of the valley of dry bones, a portent that the Jews, exiled to Babylonia, would experience a national rebirth in the land of Israel.

By the 1st century, Roman occupation led to a flourishing belief in the messiah among the Jews of Israel. He would be a descendent of King David, defeat Israel's persecutors "“ that would be Rome -- and restore Jewish independence in the land. A savior.

For Christians, the issue was settled between Christmas and Easter. But for Jews, the question remained open and, for the next 2,000 years, particularly in periods of harsh persecution, slaughter or expulsion, Jews experienced repeated messiah moments. At best, they didn't end well. Here are 10:

1st century

Messiahs flourish in the land of Israel before the first Jewish revolt against Rome breaks out in the year 70. Jesus announces, "The Kingdom of God is at hand." The Romans execute him.


Rabbi Akiva, one of the most revered sages in Jewish history, declares Shimon bar Kokhba, charismatic military leader of the third Jewish revolt against Rome, to be the messiah. Three years later, bar Kokhba is killed as the Romans defeat the Judean forces. The Romans execute Rabbi Akiva by flaying him alive.


Moses appears in Crete and announces he will part the Mediterranean Sea. His followers jump in the water, where many drown.


False messiahs appear in Persia and Syria. In Persia, Abu Isa is succeeded by his disciple Yudghan, who is succeeded by his disciple Mushka. Otherwise, enjoy little success. Meanwhile, in Syria, Serenus promises to expel the Muslim rulers of Israel and garners followers from as far as Spain. When captured by the caliph, Serenus tells him he was just kidding. The caliph, who enjoyed a good laugh as much as anyone, turns Serenus over to the Jews "“ whose religious practices he derided "“ for punishment.


Preeminent scholar Maimonides (also known as Rambam) includes the belief in the messiah in his 13 articles of faith, still upheld by traditional Jews. A rationalist, he also condemns messianic speculation as futile and irrational.


At least nine messianic movements shake Jewish communities from Spain to Babylonia. In Kurdistan, David Alroy is proclaimed the messiah and leads a revolt. He is killed, probably by his father-in-law.


David Reuveni presents himself as the emissary and brother of the ruler of a Jewish kingdom in Arabia. With his disciple Shlomo Molcho "“ leader of a movement that believes Reuveni is the messiah "“ Reuveni attempts to convince the Holy Roman emperor to liberate Israel from the Turks. Both men eventually are imprisoned, tried by the Inquisition, and executed.


In Salonika, Shabtai Tzvi declares his messiahship in a "marriage with the sacred law." Jews pack their bags for Israel. In 1666, under threat of death from the Turkish sultan, Shabtai Tzvi embraces Islam.


Jacob Frank declares himself the successor of Shabtai Tzvi and conducts orgies to bring redemption through impurity. Many of his followers convert to Catholicism and become members of the Polish nobility.


Believing their ailing leader will shortly reveal himself as the messiah, members of the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic movement scour Israel for a white donkey that the 90-year-old Brooklynite can ride to announce his arrival. The Lubavitcher rebbe dies in New York on June 12, 1994, without revealing anything.

Some of the rebbe's followers still say he was the messiah. No word if they ever found the donkey.

David Holzel is a writer living outside Washington, D.C. He serves as editor of The Jewish Angle.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]