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Why Is There a Mohammad Statue at the Supreme Court?

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(President) Will and (Editor) Jason told me about a Mohammad statue at the Supreme Court they heard about on This American Life. This was their way of saying, "We're curious, so you should go do a bunch of research on it. Let us know how that goes."


When I hear about depictions of Mohammad, I picture Muslims burning Aqua* CDs in the streets and boycotts of Danish"¦danishes.


But much to my surprise, the Danes aren't to blame this time around. The statue in question is, in fact, right in our very own Supreme Court building.


Let's start at the beginning.

A Court to Call Home

Despite its stature in the country's political and cultural landscape, the Supreme Court was something of a vagabond in its early years. When New York City was our capital, the Court met in the Merchants Exchange Building, and when the capital moved to Philadelphia in 1790, the Court set up shop in Independence Hall, and then City Hall. When the federal government went off to Washington, the Court used the Capitol Building as a flophouse, but got bounced to a new chamber six different times during their stay.

Finally, in 1929, Chief Justice William Howard Taft decided enough was enough and persuaded Congress to authorize the construction of a permanent home for the Court. Construction on the Supreme Court Building was completed in 1935, and the Court finally had a home to call its own after 146 years of existence.

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Sculpture figures prominently in the Corinthian architecture of the Court Building. One chamber features a frieze decorated with a bas-relief sculpture by Adolph A. Weinman of eighteen influential law-givers. The south wall depicts Menes, Hammurabi, Moses, Solomon, Lycurgus, Solon, Draco, Confucius and Octavian, while the north wall depicts Napoleon Bonaparte, John Marshall, William Blackstone, Hugo Grotius, Louis IX, King John, Charlemagne, Justinian and, you guessed it, Mohammad.

Objections

Things were all well and good for a few decades, with no documented controversies over the sculpture that I could find. But then, in 1997, the fledgling Council on American-Islamic Relations brought their wrath to the Court, petitioning then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist to remove the sculpture. CAIR outlined their objections as thus: 1. Islam discourages its followers from portraying any prophet in artistic representations, less the seed of idol worship be planted. 2. Depicting Mohammed carrying a sword "reinforced long-held stereotypes of Muslims as intolerant conquerors." 3. Building documents and tourist pamphlets referred to Mohammad as "the founder of Islam," when he is, more accurately, the "last in a line of prophets that includes Abraham, Moses and Jesus."

Rehnquist dismissed CAIR's objections, saying that the depiction was "intended only to recognize him [Mohammad]"¦as an important figure in the history of law; it was not intended as a form of idol worship." He also reminded CAIR that "swords are used throughout the Court's architecture as a symbol of justice and nearly a dozen swords appear in the courtroom friezes alone."

Rehnquist did make one concession, though, and promised the description of the sculpture would be changed to identify Mohammad as a "Prophet of Islam," and not "Founder of Islam." The rewording also said that the figure is a "well-intentioned attempt by the sculptor to honor Mohammed, and it bears no resemblance to Mohammed."

The reasoning behind Rehnquist's rejection? For one, he believed that getting rid of any one sculpture would impair the artistic integrity of the frieze, and two, it's illegal to injure, in any way, an architectural feature of the Supreme Court Building.

Other Depictions of the Prophet

While the Qur'an forbids idolatry, it doesn't expressly forbid depictions of the Prophet. The prohibition on such depictions that we often hear about comes from hadith (oral traditions that supplement the Qur'an). Muslim groups have differing opinions on the prohibition, with Shi'a Muslims generally taking a more relaxed view than Sunnis. That said, there are more depictions of Mohammad in art out there than we'd think, from the US to Uzbekistan. Until the 1950s, there was even a statue of the Prophet at the Manhattan Appellant Courthouse, right on the front steps. Anyone want to clue us in on other Mohammad art hanging around out there?

*Yes, they're the most famous Danes I could think of"¦

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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