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History of the World: Famous Fires

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If you're a good sleuth—I mean, if you could really give Sherlock Holmes or Nancy Drew a run for their money—then you might have noticed that the _floss has a book coming out at the end of the month. That means we have roughly 400 pages jam-packed with fascinating flossiness to share with you. It comes out October 28, so between now and then, we thought we'd feature some of our favorite bits. I've been through it three or four times now and I find something new and interesting every time—hopefully you'll agree!

Rome

romeDuring the night of July 18, 64 CE, a fire broke out in the shops near the Circus Maximus, the city's mammoth stadium. It spread quickly and lasted more than a week, destroying more than 70 percent of Rome. Who was the culprit? Romans had their eyes on Nero, who made no bones about wanting a new palace in the center of the city. The Senate held him off because they didn't want to tear down perfectly good buildings just to make his (not-so) humble abode, so obviously citizens assumed Nero took things into his own hands. It was even said that Nero's thugs stopped people who tried to put the fire out. But, truth be told, Nero wasn't even in town. When he heard, he rushed back to Rome and did what he could to help. But Romans weren't convinced of his innocence, so he pointed the finger at Christians and had hundreds executed horribly and painfully. In reality, the fire probably did start by accident, although some historians still blame Nero and some think the more zealous Christians could have actually started it by trying to fulfill Biblical prophecies.

The Globe Theater

globe
It's easy to be snooty about your Shakespeare knowledge these days, or feel a little high brow if you're attending a stage production of King Lear or something. But in Shakespeare's time, the experience was actually really bawdy. The Globe was located in the same neighborhood as buildings that hosted cockfights, the place was lousy with pickpockets and it was totally commonplace for theatergoers to yell at the actors and throw things at the stage. With such craziness and riot-like crowds, it's not that surprising that a theatrical cannon went off in the wrong direction, hit the rafters and started a fire. The fire burned the Globe to the ground, but miraculously, records show that only one person was hurt. That's pretty amazing considering that the Globe often packed in 3,000 people for one play. And the one guy who was injured? Well, that was his own fault. When his pants caught on fire, he thought it would be best to extinguish the flames by dousing them with ale.

Tokyo

On September 2, 1923, a four-minute, 7.4-on-the-Richter-scale earthquake rocked Tokyo. It definitely did some damage, but worse were the fires that popped up everywhere afterward. It happened right around lunchtime, so thousands of stoves were lit. This resulted in, well, thousands of little fires that joined up with the large ones already in progress. All in all, the death toll was more than 130,000 with more than 700,000 residences destroyed. Worse, though, all of the mayhem created rumors that Japan was being invaded, so vigilante mobs started beating and killing non-Japanese, especially Koreans.

Dante's Inferno

DANTE

OK, it's a different type of fire, but a fire nonetheless. Dante Alighieri pretty much based his Inferno on creative ways of torturing people throughout history whom he really hated. Despite being more than a vengeful and, you know, creepy, it was actually a really good thing: he wrote in his native Italian, so ordinary people were able to read his writings. His books were so influential that a lot of his spellings and grammar have carried over into modern Italian.

Picture 4.pngIt's the greatest deal in the history of history books! Our first hardback, The Mental Floss History of the World: An Irreverent Romp Through History's Best Bits, hits stores later this month, and we're so excited that we've teamed up with the fine folks at Amazon.com to give you a special deal. Pre-order the book before October 27th and we'll throw in 6 FREE MONTHS of mental_floss magazine! Just click here to get the deal now.


For more about the book, check out our FAQ.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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