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Creatively Speaking: J. Michael Matkin

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idiots.jpg Our Creatively Speaking series of interviews continues this week with J. Michael Matkin, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Gnostic Gospels, and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Early Christianity, just published last month. I found it very well written and full of information I never knew before.Tomorrow, we'll be giving away a free copy of J. Michael's latest book, so be sure to tune in for the giveaway contest. Meanwhile, below, check out the interview about the book, as well as J. Michael's advice for pitching your own Idiot's Guide book. (Come on, admit it: you know you've got an idea for one, too!)

DI: In your book you state: "Christianity has been growing by leaps and bounds in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. By 2050, if present trends continue, only one out of five Christians will be wealthy, white suburbanites. .. The last time Christianity looked like this was during those formative three centuries we will examine together in this book..." To what do you attribute these new believers, these new followers of Christianity?

JMM: A friend of mine once commented to me that Christians had made a pretty shrewd marketing move by making a crucified man their symbol. That was his tongue-in-cheek way of pointing out that Christianity has a special attraction to those who are suffering, to the marginalized, to the oppressed. On the off chance that someone hadn't noticed, that tends to be a rather large chunk of the world's population these days. The Jesus story resonates with many in postcolonial Asia, Africa and Latin America in ways that it has ceased to for the majority of Europe and Canada, and increasingly so for the United States.

Lamin Sanneh, a scholar at Yale, has pointed out that one genius of Christianity is that it translates into different cultures well. We've seen a lot of that happening as Christianity has been spreading so rapidly.

Around the world, Christians are creating indigenous (as in, local) theologies. They're telling the Jesus story in new ways, in ways that speak to their own circumstances, rather than just accepting Western forms of worship and theology. It's this ability to leapfrog from one cultural setting to another that makes Christianity such a nimble faith.

DI: In researching the book, were there one or two facts you stumbled upon that were particularly interesting or surprising, even to you?

JMM: I think the thing that always impresses me when I spend time immersed in those first few centuries of Christian history is the incredibly small size of that early Christian community. Even in the largest cities of the Roman Empire the Christian population rarely numbered more than a few hundred and usually much less until well into the second century or beyond.

The entire first-century Christian community probably wouldn't have filled Madison Square Garden. These days, you can find individual congregations that are larger than that.

That makes it really surprising when, for example, you read Paul's letter to the Christians in the city of Corinth. He talks about the church as if it's the center of God's activity in the world, and uses all of this cosmic language that really makes the Christians sound so important. And then you realize that he's writing to a group of about one hundred people. To go from that to today, where Christianity is the largest religion in the world, can give you a bit of historical vertigo. It blows your sense of scale right out of the water, and that's fun for me.

DI: Of course, you address this in some detail in the book, but for our readers: When were the Gospels written and by whom?

JMM: Scholars love to fight over precisely this question, and with good reason. The answers will determine whether or not you think that the New Testament gospels present an authoritative version of the Jesus story or whether they are just the most successful of several competing interpretations. The conclusions that different biblical scholars have reached, and their reasoning for doing so, diverge widely. It's hard to cover briefly, but I'll give it a shot.

Generally speaking, the majority of scholars believe that the New Testament Gospels were written somewhere between AD 50 and 100, with Mark believed to have been the first written and John the last. As to who actually wrote the four Gospels, that's a bit trickier, since nobody just comes right out and says, "I, Luke, wrote this gospel". Nevertheless, as far as we can tell, none of the New Testament gospels ever circulated without a title, and when you think about it that stands to reason. As soon as you had more than one gospel in circulation you would need some way of distinguishing, say, Mark's gospel from Luke's.

So pretty early on, if not right away, the Christian community believed that somebody named Matthew wrote Matthew's gospel, or had it written under his authority. Is that the same Matthew that appears in the gospels as one of Jesus' disciples? I mean, maybe it was Matthew the hairdresser, right?

The early Christian community spread rapidly and organically, and even the New Testament demonstrates that there wasn't a rigidly controlled hierarchy and membership, but was there any structure? Were there certain people who were recognized as authorized tellers of the Jesus story? If that's true, the Christian communities were unlikely to accept a gospel written by just any old Matthew. He'd have to have some kind of authority in the community, and only one guy we know of fits that bill. The same would be true for the other three.

So we seem to be on pretty decent ground for assuming that recognizable individuals were responsible for the four gospels, people that early Christians would have acknowledged as genuine authorities on the subject of Jesus. And that means that the authors of the gospels may really have been the apostle Matthew, Mark the companion of Simon Peter, Luke the companion of Paul and the apostle John. Unfortunately, there's just no way to prove it conclusively.

DI: I found the chapter on God's Daughters particularly interesting. Can you talk a little bit about the new research that's revealing a more appreciative look at the role women played in the early days of Christianity?

JMM: That was actually one of my favorite chapters to write, and I'm only sorry that I couldn't have gone on longer about the role of women in the earliest Christian communities, because it was extensive and critical to the success of Christianity in the ancient world.

When we think about going to church, most of us tend to picture some kind of public building somewhere. For its first three hundred years, however, Christians met primarily in private homes, and in the ancient world (as it is for much of human society still)the home was the province of women. As scholars have paid more attention to the impact of home gatherings on shape of the early Christian communities, the role and authority of women has increasingly been recognized as central to the growth of Christianity in its earliest years.

Some of the really interesting new evidence comes in the form of what scholars call "˜epigraphical data'. That's a catch-all term for things like epitaphs, graffiti, common documents like letters and receipts, all the bits and pieces of daily existence that can briefly illuminate the life of an otherwise unknown person. And it's in these often-overlooked pieces of the historical puzzle that we find numerous references to women operating in leadership roles throughout the early Christian community. There are some 30,000 inscriptions of various kinds that date from the earliest centuries of Christian history, and only a few have been analyzed, so we expect to see more of these results emerging in the coming years.

Along with all the neat new archaeology that's been done, a great deal of the credit for recognizing the importance of women in the early history of Christianity has to go to the feminist theological movement, and especially to Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and her landmark book In Memory of Her. It was Schüssler Fiorenza who reminded a whole generation of scholars that just because the "˜official' story says that women weren't involved in leadership doesn't make it so. I know that sounds pretty obvious, but you would be amazed at how much we were missing just because we had convinced ourselves that what we were seeing "“ for example, a woman in Paul's letter to the Romans who is called an "˜apostle' - was impossible. Once we decided to actually believe our eyes, a much more accurate picture of women in the early Christian community began appearing. It's like looking at one of those hidden 3D pictures; the image is there the whole time, you just have to learn how to look at it differently before you can see it.

DI: Slaves were a very big part of life around the time Christianity was born. What is the original Christian take on slavery, and, if it's changed over the years, how has it?

JMM: That's going to be an increasingly important question in the coming years as the center of gravity for the Christian faith keeps shifting to parts of the world where slavery is more of a daily reality for some people than it is here in the West.

Early Christian views of slavery are complex. On the one hand, there doesn't seem to have been any kind of widespread rejection of the institution of slavery. You don't see Christians rising up to overthrow the slave economy in the Roman Empire, for example.

On the other hand, Christianity had a way of redefining relationships, especially social relationships, from the inside out. Witness Paul's letter to his friend Philemon, where the apostle returns a runaway slave to Philemon but then reminds his friend that the young slave is now a Christian as well, and that this brotherly connection between the two is more important than the fact that they are master and slave. So Christianity didn't attack the institution of slavery so much as it set out to undermine the mindset that makes slavery possible in the first place.

Of course, I need to point out that Roman slavery wasn't racially based; slavery in the West has been. In Rome, a slave was looked down upon because of his status, not because of his race. That's a crucial difference between the kind of slavery that early Christians experienced (many of them were slaves themselves) and the way that slavery has evolved in Western history.

DI: Changing gears, I'm betting a lot of our readers have at least one Idiot's Guides on their shelves. It's an amazingly successful brand. I'm also sure some of our readers have, at one time or another, thought: Hey, I should write the Idiot's Guide to X. What's the process like? Did you pitch them or did they seek you out?

JMM: The editorial staff at Alpha Press, the publishers who put out the Idiot's Guide line, are pretty aggressive in seeking out new and relevant topics for their brand. I've had the good fortune to write two Idiot's Guides, and in both cases it was the acquisitions editors who took the lead in selecting the topic and soliciting my input.

As you can easily see from the first moment that you pick up an Idiot's Guide, the format and style are pretty specific. That is actually quite helpful, especially for a first-time writer, because you know what your editors are looking for and how to meet those expectations. If anything, I think it's the deadlines that can be difficult, but that's the case in any kind of publishing.

DI: I think there are around 500 different Idiot's Guides. Be honest: Other than the two you've penned, which do you own?

JMM: I have this perverse desire to buy The Complete Idiot's Guide to Starting and Running a Bar just to have it on my shelf. What I actually do have are copies of the Complete Idiot's Guides to Mary Magdalene, Digital Photography and Playing the Guitar.

DI: What's your next book?

JMM: I've always been fascinated by the monastic communities that formed in the deserts of Egypt during the early Christian era. Through the centuries, this "˜desert spirituality' developed new forms and practices and it moved out into the larger Christian world. In my next book I'm going to highlight examples of the ways that Christians have tried to live out that kind of ideal community in the past two thousand years. For readers who are seeking silence and spirituality in the midst of a community, this book will be like a travelogue of the places where that's been tried.

Browse through past Creatively Speaking posts here >>

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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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Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]