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The Quick 10: 10 Famous Elephants

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Who knew there were so many historical elephants? I was aware of Dumbo (fiction, I know), and I was aware of Jumbo (P.T. Barnum's famous elephant), but they are just the tip of the iceberg. Here are 10 more who have left their footprints in history (get it??).

1. Abul-Abbas was Charlemagne's personal pet. He was exhibited for the public many times, especially when Charlemagne's court was together. He died pf pneumonia in his 40s in the year 810"¦ probably after a session of swimming in the Rhine River.

ruby2. Ruby, a petite 4.5 Asian elephant, was famous for her paintings. Her keepers saw her basically doodling in the dirt with her trunk and gave her a brush and some paint, and her career as an artist was born. She died in 1998 during birth "“ her 320-pound calf had died in the womb and a massive infection had spread through Ruby. She had to be euthanized.

3. Batyr was also known as the "Speaking Elephant" because he could replicate human noises. He lived his whole life at the Karaganda Zoo in Kazakhstan and never came in contact with another elephant. He first started "talking" at the age of eight; he often asked his attendants for water and praised himself. Among his words were Batyr, water, good, bad, fool, yes and give. He also could imitate dog barks and human whistles. He made the noises by pushing his trunk into his mouth and manipulating his jaw and tongue. He died in 1993 at the age of 23.

4. Hanno was Pope Leo X's pet white elephant. Pope Leo loved him immensely and was devastated when he died at the young age of six. Supposedly he died when he was given a treatment for constipation that was worse than the constipation itself. Nonetheless, he died with the Pope at his side. The Pope wrote Hanno's epitaph himself and had a fresco by Raphael commissioned.

5. (and 6). Poor Castor and Pollux. Paris was under siege from the Prussian army in 1870, citizens killed various zoo animals for their meat. Horses were first; cats, dogs and rats soon followed. Then the zoo animals got the axe "“ antelope, camels, yaks and zebra. Sadly, Castor and Pollux suffered the same fate. The citizens really had no qualms about eating the beloved elephants that had been popular for rides around the park "“ writer Henry Labouchère gave the meat a review as if he were dining at Nobu: "Yesterday, I had a slice of Pollux for dinner. Pollux and his brother Castor are two elephants, which have been killed. It was tough, coarse, and oily, and I do not recommend English families to eat elephant as long as they can get beef or mutton."

7. Murderous Mary is another sad tale, in my opinion. She killed an assistant at the circus when he prodded her behind the ear with a hook; she was immediately given the death sentence. But how do you kill a five-ton Asian elephant? You hang it, of course. Obviously, the standard tree or gallows wouldn't work, so an industrial crane was procured. The first time they tried to hang her, though, the chain snapped. She fell and broke her hip. The second time, she died. I find the picture terribly sad and disturbing, so I won't publish it here "“ but if you're interested, here's the link.

john8. John L. Sullivan was named after the famous boxer. Why, you ask? Because he boxed, of course. He had a glove put on the end of his trunk and then sparred with his trainer. He retired after a while and became known as "Old John". He still proved to be useful, though "“ he would watch the performers' children, led the rest of the elephants around and lifted heavy items. In 1922, he walked 53 miles to pay tribute to one of the first elephant in America, who we will get to in a second. He laid a wreath at her grave.

9. Old Bet was one of the first "“ if not the first "“ elephant in the U.S. She was an African elephant purchased by a farmer in 1808 to help him around the farm, but she ended up being so fascinating that he traveled around and charged people to see her instead. If you didn't have any money on you, a two-gallon jug of rum would work just fine. She was basically assassinated by a fellow farmer in 1816 who thought it was a sin for people to be spending money on such frivolous things. Old Bet is memorialized by the Elephant Hotel and statue in Somers, New York"¦ which is where Old John paid tribute to her in 1922.


10. Hansken was on tour throughout Europe in the mid-1600s. Even Rembrandt was enamored of her and drew four chalk sketches of her. Her talents included pickpocketing, drumming, firing a gun and waving a flag.

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]