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5 Charming Episodes of Violence from Medieval Iceland

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The sagas of early medieval Iceland (written down between 1100 and 1300) are some of the great works of Western literature. Heck, they've got it all: lust, envy, large-scale violence, widespread failures. Plus, these charming tales are all set in a time when a man just had to do what a man (generally a man with anger-management issues and a club) had to do.

1. Hallgerd the Petty (Njal's Saga)

One of the bloodiest feuds in Icelandic history arose from the seating chart at a wedding, when Bergthora asked Hallgerd Hoskuldsdattir to move over at a banquet to a less prestigious seat. It only makes sense that the slighted Hallgerd took the instruction as a deadly insult. Unfortunately for Bergthora, though, Hallgerd knew how to hold a grudge. After all, this was the same woman whose husband, Gunnar, once slapped her for stealing from one of his enemies. Then, years later, when besieged in his home by his enemies, Gunnar begged Hallgerd to give him a lock of her hair to repair his bowstring, and she refused, reminding him of the slap he'd given her. Gunnar was killed, and Hallgerd was finally happy.

Bergthora wasn't any luckier. Despite the attempts of Njal, Bergthora's husband, to make peace, things quickly got out of hand. Eventually, a gang attacked Njal's family on their farm and set fire to the farmhouse, killing everyone inside except for a brother-in-law, a Viking who didn't take kindly to his in-laws being barbecued. In response, he cobbled together a small army and successfully wiped out most of the conspirators before finally ending the bloody feud as all good feuds end . . . with a strategic marriage.

2. Hrafnkel's Comeback (Hrafnkel's Saga)

Hrafnkel was the perfect villain: a callous chieftain who murdered without paying compensation (this being rather bad manners at the time). Overthrown but spared by the kinsmen of a man he had killed, Hrafnkel was banished to the life of a penniless vagrant. But he managed to learn from past mistakes, gaining wisdom, kindness, and followers while his enemies grew weak and complacent. And while the wisdom and followers would definitely help him in his greater plan, we're not quite so sure we buy the kindness. Hrafnkel waited seven years for the opportunity to serve his revenge ice cold. And when it finally came, he killed the most dangerous of his enemies, then chased the rest out of his former holdings.

3. Thorstein Replaces the Men He Kills (The Tale of Thorstein the Staff-Struck)

What's a poor farmer to do when his honor is insulted by three servants of a wealthy landowner? If you're Thorstein Thorarinsson, you kill 'em, announcing your actions after the fact in accordance with Icelandic custom.

Luckily for Thorstein, the three he killed were so worthless that their own boss didn't particularly want to avenge them. Thorstein and the chieftain, Bjarni, fought a rather halfhearted duel, punctuated by frequent water breaks, pauses to examine one another's weapons, and even stops to tie their shoes mid-battle. Finally, they reached a settlement: Thorstein, who was strong enough to do the work of three men, became the perfect replacement for the three he had killed. Downsizing, Icelandic style.

4. Egil Rewrites a Poem in His Head (Egil's Saga)

Egil was a raider, a pirate, a murderer, and, oh so predictably, an accomplished poet to boot. On his way to deliver a poem to King Athelstan of England, he fell into the clutches of Eirik, the Viking king of York. This was most unfortunate, as Egil had made a career of being quite a pain in Eirik's royal rear. Given one night's reprieve while the king decided the method of execution, Egil stunned everyone by delivering, in perfect meter, a poem in praise of Eirik. He was released well before anyone realized that he had just replaced "Athelstan" with "Eirik" (the Old Norse form), maintaining the rhythm of the poem and saving his own neck. Long after he died of old age, Egil's grave was excavated and his abnormally bulky skull was discovered, proving that you can have a thick head and still do some quick thinking.

5. Gudmund Negotiates a Deal (Gudmund the Worthy's Saga)

When a chump named Skaering had his hand cut off by Norwegian merchants, he turned to his kinsman Gudmund to get him justice. Ever helpful, Gudmund arranged a monetary settlement, but as soon as he left the scene the Norwegians refused to pay. Summoned back, a rather annoyed Gudmund made the following proposal: "I will pay Skaering the amount that you mental-floss-forbidden-knowledge.jpgwere judged to pay, but I shall choose one man from among you who seems to me of equivalent standing with Skaering and chop off his hand. You may then compensate that fellow's hand as cheaply as you wish." Not surprisingly, the Norwegians quickly coughed up the money, no doubt to the sound of Skaering's one hand clapping.

This article was written by Brian Gottesman and excerpted from Forbidden Knowledge: A Wickedly Smart Guide to History's Naughtiest Bits. You can pick up a copy in the mental_floss store.

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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]