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9 Other Things That Happened Christmas Day

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1. Lots of Notable People Were Born

For at least 1,656 years, Jesus's birthday has been celebrated on Christmas day. As a result, those born on December 25 have complained that they only get one set of gifts each year. At least they have some good company. Christmas day is also the birthday of (among many other notables) scientist Isaac Newton, cosmetics tycoon Helena Rubenstein, Egypitian president Anwar Sadat, and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. It is also the birthday of several entertainers, including Cab Calloway, Rod Serling, Little Richard, Sissy Spacek, Annie Lennox"¦ and Humphrey Bogart, star of movies like Casablanca and The African Queen.

bogie.jpgBogie's birthday, however, was long under dispute. According to Hollywood legend, his birth date was actually January 23, 1900, but Warner Brothers Studios listed it as Christmas Day, 1899, when he went from playing thugs to heroic leading men. The reason? If everyone thought that he was born on Christmas, they wouldn't think that he was such a villain.


It's dubious logic, of course "“ and the truth is that he really was a Christmas baby. Nonetheless, many film writers and biographers have still fallen for the Hollywood myth that his Christmas birthday was a Hollywood myth. (Got that?)

2. Ten Days Went Missing

In case you think that Christmas sometimes comes too quickly, spare a thought for the Dutch provinces of Brabant, Zeeland and the Staten-Generaal, which adopted the common Gregorian calendar (along with most of Europe) in 1582 "“ and adjusted the dates to cater for this. In those provinces, the final day of the old calendar was December 14. When they awoke the next morning, it was December 25. Hopefully they had all finished their Christmas shopping.

The Gregorian calendar reformed the previous Julian calendar, which had been introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. Though Caesar had based his calendar on astronomical data, his scientists had miscalculated the lunar and solar times, so that by the 16th century, the spring equinox (which included Easter) was starting to seem a little wintry. To deal with this, Pope Gregory XIII assembled a team of expert mathematicians and astronomers to create a new, official calendar. Among the reforms, New Years Day was on, er, January 1. Previously, for reasons too complicated to explain, it had been celebrated in late March.

3. A Christmas Truce

Only six months into World War I, the scale of slaughter was difficult to comprehend. Hundreds of thousands of German and British soldiers had already died (only a fraction of the nine million lives that would eventually be claimed by the war). Yet if you want an example of the power of Christmas, none would be more powerful than the scene in one corner of the Western Front on Christmas Day 1914, when the enemy soldiers climbed from the trenches and greeted each other in the open, making no attempt to shoot each other. The Germans offered cigars and (speaking French) requested English fruit jam (jelly). It was a brief "Christmas truce," in which they played soccer, exchanged wine and photos, and sang each other carols in their native languages. Though the hostilities would recommence by New Years Day, the British generals were appalled by this truce, and ordered Christmas Eve artillery bombardments each year for the rest of the war (ensuring that nobody would have time to make merry). But they couldn't completely end the goodwill. A similar truce would held in 1915 between German and French troops, and an Easter truce would be enforced in 1916.

4. Washington Crosses the Delaware

In one of the most famous and decisive moments of the American Revolution, General George Washington led his army across the Delaware River to Trenton, New Jersey, with the password "Victory or Death." In the evening, they captured 1,000 Hessian soldiers in a surprise attack that raised morale in Washington's troops and turned the tide of the war.

5. Coronation Day

In Christian nations, Christmas has been a popular date for coronations "“ at least since 800, when Charles the Great (Charlemagne) was crowned Roman emperor by Pope Leo III, technically making his the rightful successor to Augustus Caesar. Over the next few hundred years, many popes, monarchs and bishops have had Christmas coronations. Among them was William the Conqueror, who was crowned king of England in 1066, two months after defeating the Saxon army at the Battle of Hastings. But since then, the tradition has lost favor. Over 900 years later, William's descendent, Queen Elizabeth II, made it quite clear in her 1991 Christmas Message (televised, as every year, to millions of Britons) that, despite rumors, she would not be stepping aside for her son, Prince Charles.

6. Hirohito Ascends

Japanese Emperor Yoshihito died on Christmas Day 1926, and was immediately replaced by his son Hirohito, who began a record 62-year reign (far longer than any other Japanese emperor, and the fifth longest-reigning monarch in world history). The official name of his reign was Showa, the "time of enlightened peace," but it would see Japan become a more militaristic and aggressive force. After Japan's terrible defeat in World War II, however, Hirohito learned the art of humility, and renouncing his traditional divinity. His subjects were now permitted look him in the face.

7. Ceausescu's Execution

200.jpgThe year 1989 saw the fall of many Eastern European dictators, but none were as dramatic as that of Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu, who refused to relinquish his power. Ceausescu had bled the country dry, leaving many Romanians in poverty while he and his family built palaces and lived in luxury. (He burned down the houses of 30,000 families to build a palace in Bucharest, which was never completed.) Eventually, even his army turned against him. He and his equally despised wife, Elena, spent their Christmas on trial for "extremely grave crimes against the State." Though they weren't particularly helpful during the trial ("I will answer only to the workers," said Ceausescu), they were quickly found guilty. By the end of the day, Romanians were treated to an unusual Christmas TV special: the execution of the Ceausecus, by firing squad. Still seemingly deluded enough to think that they were adored by their former subjects, they looked confused and angry in their final moments. The news led to dancing in the streets of Bucharest.

8. Date with Disaster

If you thought burnt turkey and out-of-tune carol-singing with the family was bad, think of all the terrible disasters that have happened on Christmas day. In 1717, floods ravaged coastal provinces in Holland, killing thousands. In 1953, a train plunged into New Zealand's Wangaehu River, leaving 166 dead. In 1971, a fire killed 163 at the Taeyokale Hotel in Seoul. In 1974, Cyclone Tracy destroyed much of the city of Darwin, in northern Australia. Sixty-five people died, and Darwin was so damaged that fund-raisers, including a hit song called "Santa Never Made it to Darwin," raised millions for reconstruction. In case Australia needed more Christmas disasters, a fire at a Sydney backpackers' hotel left 13 dead on Christmas Day the very next year.

A year after that, Egypt's SS Patria sank in the Red Sea, killing 100. More recently, a 2004 earthquake in south-east Asia, measuring 9.3 on the Richter scale, led to a devastating group of tsunamis the next day, which would ultimately kill over 200,000 people.

Rather than end on such a low note, let's finish the Christmas list with one of the lighter moments"¦

9. Dick Marries Tess

Dick Tracy has been described as "the first realistic police [comic] strip", which sounds odd for a strip where the crooks have names like Mr. Bribery, Pruneface and Boris Arson, and look as ridiculous as they sound. Nonetheless, plainclothes cop Dick Tracy did a few things that were surprisingly real for a comic strip. For starters, he became one of the first comic strip heroes to marry his sweetheart, Tess Truehart, on Christmas Day 1949. True, they had been dating for 18 years (during which time they hadn't aged a day, of course), but as Superman and Lois Lane would take 58 years to tie the knot, and Popeye finally married Olive Oyl after 70 years, that's not a bad waiting time. Their daughter, Bonnie Braids, was born (in the back of a squad car) in 1951.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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