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My Favorite Monsters: the Thing Without a Name

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We've talked about several different archetypes of monster here thus far -- the zombie, which includes other mute, lumbering killing machines like Jason and Michael Myers, and the vampire, who if you take away the fangs and the literal need for blood looks a lot like Hannibal Lecter -- but none of these monsters have been too conceptually challenging. (The zombie eats your brain. The vampire drinks your blood. Boom.) By comparison, the Thing Without a Name is downright intellectual.

It's also my favorite. Unfortunately, you don't see the TWaN on celluloid very much, because by its very nature it's difficult to describe, and thus difficult to film. It resides more in the province of horror fiction, where twisted souls like Poe and HP Lovecraft perfected it. Here's the TWaN's deal, in a nutshell: usually an entity from another dimension, another reality or Hell, it's so mind-rapingly horrible that in most cases to even look upon the TWaN means you'll be spending the rest of your days in a straitjacket.

Many of Lovecraft's best stories deal with TWaNs, like his oft-imitated "At the Mountains of Madness," about a team of Antarctic explorers who find the strange ruins of an alien outpost behind a range of long-unscalable mountains. When a few of the the horrible, ululating creatures who live there emerge and chase the team, the one man who looks back at them promptly loses his mind, and is later unable (or unwilling) to describe what he saw. (If this story and its title reminds you of John Carpenter's cruddy In the Mouth of Madness, it should; it's one of many cinematic homages to Lovecraft's work and this story in particular. In it, the latest novel by a Stephen King-esque author named Sutter Cane drives people who read it insane, turning Cane's agent into an axe-wielding maniac and causing riots in the streets. Ooookay.)
mouth-of-madness-fear.jpgAbove: in the aforementioned shlockfest, Sam Neill saw something he shouldn't have. Now THAT'S crazy.

More popularly known, Stephen King's It trades on classic Lovecraftian Thing Without a Name tropes. For those of you who only remember Pennywise the Clown, don't forget that "It" was a shape-shifter -- one way to get around never showing your TWaN is to have it manifest itself in different forms "which the human mind can comprehend." Wikipedia elaborates:

"'It' apparently originated in a void containing and surrounding the Universe, a place referred to in the novel as the "Macroverse". Its real name (if indeed It has one) is unknown. Likewise, It's true form is never truly comprehended. Its final form in the physical realm is that of an enormous spider, but even this is only the closest the human mind can get to approximating It's actual physical form. Its natural form exists in a realm beyond the physical, which It calls the 'deadlights.' Coming face to face with the deadlights drives any living being instantly insane."

it-pennywise-basement.jpg

It's a little corny, maybe, but I really dig the whole it'll-drive-you-insane thing. It trades on larger issues we have as human beings in the world, and -- not to get Biblical on you or anything -- some Old Testament spookiness that I've always found compelling. When Job begs God for an explanation for the horrible suffering he's endured, God finally appears to Job -- but not as a benign old man the sky. Instead Job is confronted by an horrific, baffling whirlwind which some Biblical scholars translate to be called simply "The Unnameable," and the story ends with Job getting no answer and being kind of sorry he asked in the first place; it's made starkly clear that he'll never comprehend the true nature of the universe. Like, wow -- so God is a Thing Without a Name, too!

There are plenty of references to this kind of intense, frightening revelatory experience in religious literature -- what Thoreau calls (paraphrasing) "the light of truth that will put out your eyes." Naked reality is too much for our little minds to handle. It's a theme that's used in religious literature and horror literature alike; two sides of the same coin. Too much knowledge can destroy you -- don't bite the apple; don't fly too high or your wings will melt -- etc etc. My favorite example is the Tower of Babel story: hubristic humans try to built a tower to Heaven so that they might know the mind of God. Instead their tower is destroyed and their minds are confused; the story ends with them running around like chickens with their heads cut off, all speaking different languages. In other words, you don't have to know everything, and in fact it's better if you don't. Look back at Sodom and Gomorrah as God is destroying them and you might turn into a pillar of salt; look back at the horrible Antarctic Elder Being that's ululating behind you and you just might lose your mind.

Stephen King briefly lays out his ideas on the subject (while talking about Lovecraft) in his exegesis on horror, Danse Macabre:

The best of [these stories] make us feel the size of the universe we hang suspended in, and suggest shadowy forces that could destroy us all if they so much as grunted in their sleep. After all, what is the paltry evil of the A-bomb when compared to [Lovecraftian creatures] Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos, or Yog-Sogoth, the Goat with a Thousand Young?"

On the flip side of that coin, at the end of Job, our titular hero also feels the powerful, incomprehensible hugeness of the universe, but rather than losing his mind, he loses his hubris:

"Therefore I will be quiet / Comforted that I am but dust."

In closing, let's rock out to Metallica's take on the subject with their song "The Thing That Should Not Be."

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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES