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Behind the Scenes of Macbeth

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As a play, Macbeth's got it all: spooky witches, murderous noblemen, dying kings, persistent ghosts, and a portable forest. But there's more to Shakespeare's famous drama than all the surface theatrics. The story behind Macbeth is as fascinating as the play itself.

1. A Scottish play. When he wrote his drama around 1606, Shakespeare was capitalizing on a new fascination with Scotland as England welcomed its new king James I of England--aka James VI of Scotland. The Virgin Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603; she was succeeded by James, the son of Elizabeth's second cousin Mary Queen of Scots. Insular Englishmen had a generally poor opinion of their northern neighbors--substitute "Scotsman" for "Redneck" in those "You Know You're a Redneck" jokes and you get the idea. When James took the throne and brought with him a bevy of Scottish courtiers, the English needed to bone up on their Scottish history--and stop the jokes fast.

2. Ripped from the headlines.
Just like Law & Order, Shakespeare wasn't above borrowing from current events. Except he had to do it very carefully. The heavily censored Elizabethan theater banned the portrayal of reigning monarchs. In 1604, Shakespeare's troop, the King's Men, had tried to get around this ban with a play called The Tragedy of Gowrie, which depicted the attempted assassination of King James by the Scottish nobleman the Earl of Gowrie in 1600. Gowrie had invited James to his castle and then tried to kill him, an action not only treasonous but also in violation of the rules of hospitality; it was later asserted Gowrie had engaged in witchcraft. But The Tragedy of Gowrie hit too close to home and was quickly banned by the court. The manuscript has been lost, and we don't even know who wrote it. However, a year or so later, Shakesepeare created Macbeth. In the plot, a courtier involved in witchcraft invites a king to his castle and then kills him. Just like Law & Order gets out of legal trouble by changing the names and circumstances of its "ripped from the headlines" plots, Shakespeare avoided scandal by setting the events of his play in the distant past.

3. A little eye of newt. James I had some peculiar interests, including a bizarre obsession with witchcraft. He participated in the questioning of accused witches and wrote a learned treatise called Daemonologie in 1597 in which he asserted the true aim of witches is to overthrow the king of the realm. So the inclusion of the Three Witches in Macbeth is more than a literary device: it's a way of capturing the attention of the most important member of Shakespeare's audience, the king.

4. Flattery will get you everywhere. Another way to capture the king's interest was to butter him up. James believed he was descended from the Scottish nobleman Banquo. Historical records potray Banquo as one of the murderous Macbeth's chief allies, but Shakespeare makes him the most honorable of men who refuses to help Macbeth kill the king . Shakespeare also portrays the royal succession from Banquo as unbroken and whole, "power without end" down to the present day and James. James certainly found this gratifying—who doesn't want to be told their ancestors were great guys?—and the English people liked hearing it, too. The waning years of Elizabeth's rule, when the succession was up in the air, were enormously worrying. James brought with him two sons and a fertile wife, reassuring the English there would be no messy power struggle or civil war.

5. Equivocation with get you nowhere. Reassurance about the stability of James' rule was particularly welcome in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot. A group of Catholics, then a repressed minority, planted gunpowder under the Houses of Parliament in London with the intention of setting it off on November 5, 1605 at the formal State Opening with the King, his family, and most of the nobility of the realm in attendance. The plot was discovered and the conspirators seized, among them a Jesuit priest named Henry Garnet. Garnet had in fact opposed the plot, but that didn't stop authorities from torturing and then executing him.

What the English hated the most about Garnet was his promotion of the "doctrine of mental equivocation." Equivocation was a way to deceive someone in order to protect yourself or others without telling an out-and-out lie, which was a mortal sin. Under this doctrine, if the police asked, "Have you taken Mass?" a Catholic might answer, "No," and then add in his or her own mind, "not since last night." If asked, "Are you a priest?" a Catholic priest could reply, "No," and think to himself, "I'm not a priest of Apollo."

English Protestants—lawyers in particular—found this outrageous. And so when Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, he included a dig at the king's enemies. In a short comic bit, Macbeth's porter imagines he is the gatekeeper in hell coming to greet new arrivals. "Here's an equivocator," he says of an imaginary sinner, "who committed treason enough for God's sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven."

6. "The Scottish Play." Macbeth is famously believed by actors to be "cursed." Saying the name of the play and of its two title characters is taboo within the theater, resulting in the euphemism "the Scottish play." Why would this particular play be cursed and not other Shakespearean dramas? Some say it's because the Bard stole actual spells from a coven of witches. Others say a real dagger was substituted for a fake dagger in the first performance, resulting in a death. Whatever the origins of the curse, should you accidentally utter the fateful word you have a few options to redeem yourself: either utter Hamlet's line "Angels and ministers of grace defend us," or leave the room, spin around three times while swearing, spit over your left shoulder, and the knock on the door and wait for an answer before entering.

Elizabeth Lunday writes fun and informative articles about art, architecture, and literature for sources such as mental_floss and her blog, The Dilettante. Her first book, Secret Lives of the Artists: What Your Teachers Never Told You About Master Painters and Sculptors, will be released in Fall 2008 by Quirk Books. It contains the outrageous and uncensored profiles of the world's greatest artists, complete with hundreds of little-known, politically incorrect, and downright bizarre facts—like who died of syphilis, who beat his wife, and who was convicted of murder. She's also written about a wide range of other topics from archeology to wastewater management, and once you've written about wastewater management, you can write about anything.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]