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How Do You Make a Monster? Dissecting Vampires, Werewolves and Zombies

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If I go to my DVD shelves and pick any title from my sizable collection of horror movies, chances are there'll be a lot of biting going on (in the movie, not in my living room). No matter the monster "“ vampires, werewolves, zombies "“ movies would have us believe that getting turned into one, and turning others, is as easy as a bite. But if you look at folklore and legends from around the world, getting turned into one of these creatures by a bite from one is, overall, pretty rare. Instead, man became monster by a variety of methods that range from simple to complex, coincidental to intentional. We'll take a look at some of them if you promise not to try any of this at home.


In folklore across Christian Europe, one of the common beliefs you'll find is that the souls of people who committed suicide, which the church considered unforgivable, were unable to rest in the grave. Their bodies would not decay and they would leave their graves at night to torment the living, who still had a chance at salvation. People who were excommunicated from the church and unable to receive the sacraments and people who didn't receive proper burial rituals were damned to the same fate. If you angered the Church enough, it was a sure bet that you'd become a vampire, which, of course, kept people in line.

Frequently, though, people became vampires through no fault of their own. Dumb luck methods for becoming a bloodsucker include being conceived during holy periods in the Church calendar, being born on holy days, being the illegitimate child of parents who were also illegitimate, drowning to death, having a shadow cast over your corpse, having a cat jump over your corpse, and being the seventh son of a seventh son. In Romania, it was as easy as being the seventh child in the family.

Since drinking blood is what vampires do best, a vampire's bite could also transform a person, but it's a little more complicated than in the movies. If you've ever seen From Dusk till Dawn (I don't know why you wouldn't have; stop reading this and go watch it now), there's a scene where Tom Savini "“ of Dawn of the Dead makeup effects fame "“ gets bitten on the arm and, minutes later, sprouts fangs and goes on a rampage. It's quick and it's easy and it makes for a great shot, but in vampire legend, getting bitten is more like walking into the DMV: you should be ready for lots of waiting and being bossed around by unholy, terrible creatures.

Traditionally, if a vampire wanted to turn a human, he/she would bite them and drink their blood until they were near death. The human would then drink some of the vampire's blood, die and rise again 2-7 days later as a vampire subject to the will of the vampire that bit them. In some variations, the victim has to die from the bite or be bitten a certain number of times to become a vampire.


teen-wolf-hoops.jpgBecoming a werewolf is the complete opposite of becoming a vampire. There's no way to just stumble in to it. You really need to want it.

European legend has it that a person seeking revenge for the death of a loved one would be visited by the Devil in the form of a man driving a coach pulled by black horses. In exchange for the person's soul, the Devil would offer a potion that would aid in their revenge. This potion, applied to the skin under a full moon, would immediately transform the person into a werewolf.

In Germany and Poland, a person's soul could also be traded to the Devil for a "wolf strap," a magical belt, sometimes made from wolf skin, which turned the person into a werewolf. Anyone who possessed a wolf strap would not be able to get rid of it; even if they threw it out, buried it or tossed it in a river, the strap would inevitably find its way back to the person.

In variations of this legend, it was human skin that had transformative powers. Polish witches were said to be able to transform a couple into wolves on their wedding night by laying a piece of human flesh across a doorway at the wedding feast. The bride and groom could then shift between wolf and human form at will. In Germany, the skin of a hanged man, when worn as a belt, would allow someone to become a werewolf.

Outdoorsy types living in the Balkans could have searched the forests for special "lycanthropous flowers" that were said to transform people when picked and worn under a full moon.

If someone had some time on their hands to collect the ingredients, a mixture of body fat from a child, hemlock, aconite (also known as wolfsbane), poplar leaves, soot, sweet flag, cinquefoil, deadly nightshade, bat's blood and oil would also transform them after they anointed themselves with it.


zombies.jpgAs important as zombie movies are to my enjoyment of life, this is where modern fiction really veers from monster folklore. It's not even entirely correct to call a zombie a monster. Sure, they might be frightening, but they're not the lumbering, undead, brain-eating beasts that put George Romero's kids through college. Rather, they're just normal people who are under the power of a bokor. In Haitian Vodou, bokors are sorcerers who "serve the loa [spirits] with both hands." That is, they practice magic with both malevolent and benevolent intents.

To create a zombie, the bokor feeds their victim a potion that causes paralysis and brain damage, making them appear dead. The "deceased" is then buried and the bokor exhumes the body and forces their zombie, easily controlled because of the potion, to do their bidding.

Some Haitian folklore leans even further into the supernatural and tells of powerful bokors that steal the souls of the living or reanimate the dead in order to take control of them.

You've seen Hollywood monsters and now you've heard the legends that they're based on. In a future post, we'll explore some of the real-world phenomena that may have inspired these monster myths.

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


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The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]