Original image

WENCESLAS: The Man, the Myth, the Christmas Carol

Original image

By Steven Otfinoski

As far as Christmas carols go, you've got three basic archetypes: songs about Jesus, songs about baby Jesus and songs about snowy weather. Then, tossed in with a lovable snowman, is poor King Wenceslas. Because he's jumbled into this mix, some might walk away thinking the good king existed only in song; but they'd be wrong. Very wrong. With a nation of Czechs still looking to him as their patron saint, it seems that Wenceslas more than made his mark. So, just how "good" was he? And why do we sing about him at Christmas time? Don't worry, it's all covered below.

Behind the Music

Wenceslas, or Vaclav, as he was better known, was born around 907 C.E. Strictly speaking, the "good king" wasn't a king at all, but a prince who presided over Bohemia, the region that eventually became a principal part of Czechoslovakia and more recently the Czech Republic. In addition to the "king" myth, the well-known Christmas carol has perpetuated an image of Wenceslas as a bearded, middle-aged monarch. The truth is he died around age 22.

While Wenceslas was not a king, he was a member of the first royal Bohemian dynasty, the Premysls. The first Premysl on historical record is Duke Borivoy, grandfather of Wenceslas and the first ruler in his pagan land to accept Christianity. Borivoy married the Slav princess Ludmila, who joined her husband in converting to the Christian faith, and together they built the first church in Bohemia. Upon his death Borivoy was succeeded by his two sons, Raislav, Wenceslas' father, and Spythinev. Young Wenceslas was extremely close to his grandmother, Ludmila, who instilled in him a strong religious faith and gave him a thorough education (a highly unusual opportunity since most aristocrats at the time couldn't read or write). Raislav died when Wenceslas was 13, and his power-hungry mother, Drahmoira, became regent. Although probably not a pagan herself, Drahmoira aligned herself with the anti-Christian crowd in Bohemia and separated Ludmila from her son to prevent them from plotting against her. Later she had her mother-in-law strangled, thus making Ludmila one of Bohemia's first Christian martyrs and a role model for her grandson.

Wenceslas quickly proved his mettle by going up against his mother's forces and defeating them in one decisive battle. Now the sole ruler of Bohemia, the young prince ended the persecution of Christians, promoted education among his people, and united Bohemia and Moravia into one kingdom. Accordingly, he became known for his kindness to children and the poor, a trait that is central to the Christmas carol.

The Wenceslas Formerly Known as Prince

The Czech nobles didn't like Wenceslas' promotion of Christianity, but it was his relationship with Germany that proved to be his undoing. Rather than wait to be attacked by his powerful neighbor, Wenceslas formed an alliance with Henry I, the first Saxon monarch of Germany. According to the alliance, Bohemia would be under German domination but retain much of its independence.

Angered by the alliance, the nobles, who distrusted Germany, began plotting Wenceslas' death. And, in a Shakespearean twist, they were joined in their plot by the prince's ambitious brother, Boleslav. There are several versions of how Wenceslas met his end on September 20, 929. One version holds that the scheming Boleslav invited his brother to a religious festival and personally attacked him on the way to church. A more lurid version has Boleslav's co-conspirators striking the young king down in cold blood as he attended mass.

The dark deed earned Boleslav the fitting epithet "Boleslav the Cruel," but the murderous brother turned out to be a surprisingly able monarch. His quarrel with Wenceslas must have been more political than religious, for he himself was a Christian, and he (like Wenceslas) did not persecute Christians as his mother had. Boleslav greatly expanded the kingdom of Bohemia, adding parts of Moravia not already in his kingdom, a good bit of Silesia and most of what is today Slovakia. When he died in 967 after a 38-year reign, Boleslav left behind a kingdom geographically similar to what the Czech Republic is today.

As for poor Wenceslas, his untimely death may have been the best thing to happen to him. Perhaps to atone for his act of fratricide, Boleslav had his brother's bones buried in the church of St.Vitus in Prague. The relics made the church the center of a cult to the Christian martyr and soon Bohemian pilgrims were flocking to the holy site. The celebration of Wenceslas' life became so prominent that a national holiday was created called Wenceslas' Feast Day, celebrated for the first time on September 28, 985. Within another generation, he was officially declared Bohemia's patron saint. His image appeared on coins, and the so-called "Crown of Wenceslas" became, in subsequent centuries, a symbol of the Czech lands and their people. Wenceslas remains a potent symbol of Czech patriotism and independence to this day—not bad for a prince who didn't make it to his 30s.

Martyr and Child Reunion

So where does the Christmas carol fit into all this? Fast forward about 800 years to London when John Mason Neale, son of an Anglican clergyman, was born in 1818. After being ordained in 1842, chronic poor health prevented Neale from being appointed to a parish. Instead, he was made chief official of Sackville College in 1846. Sackville, despite its name, was not an institute of higher learning but an almshouse that sheltered the poor and underprivileged. Neale took his charge seriously and worked tirelessly to better the lot of the unfortunate. In 1854 he co-founded the Sisterhood of St. Margaret, a religious order whose duty was to nurse the sick. To many Anglicans, this smacked too much of Roman Catholicism, and they accused Neale of being an agent of Rome. He was physically attacked by a crowd at a funeral service and several times was nearly stoned by mobs who also threatened to burn down his house.

But Neale survived the persecution and eventually earned some respect as a church scholar and translator of ancient and medieval hymns from the original Latin and Greek. He also penned original hymns and carols, the most famous being "Good King Wenceslas," written in 1853. He intended it as a carol for children to instill in them the importance of giving to the unfortunate, and chose Wenceslas as his protagonist because of his reputation as a pious ruler who was kind to the poor.

"Good King Wenceslas," with its quaint moral lesson of a king who enlists his page to help him bring food, wine and fuel to one of his poorest subjects during a raging storm, was an instant success. The Good Reverend Neale continued to serve the poor himself until his death at age 48 in 1866.

For all its popularity, "Good King Wenceslas" isn't strictly a Christmas carol. In fact, the story told in the carol takes place on the Feast of Stephen, which falls on December 26, the day after Christmas. However, Stephen, as those of you who are savvy about your saints know, was also the first Christian martyr, which makes the setting of this popular carol grimly appropriate.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
Original image

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.