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10 Facts About St. Peter's Basilica

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Whether you're Catholic or not, it's hard to argue with the fact that St. Peter's Basilica in Rome is an amazing feat of architecture and art. The cornerstone for this sanctified structure was laid on April 18, 1506, so its birthday is just around the corner. In case you're counting, that's 503 candles on the cake. To celebrate, here are a few facts about the House that Peter Built (according to Catholic tradition, anyway).

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1. The current Basilica is actually St. Peter's Basilica #2.

Old Saint Peter's Basilica (OSPB, for future reference) was built on the orders of Constantine I sometime around 324. It was at OSPB that Charlemagne was crowned the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in on Christmas Day in 800. Not much of the original Basilica remains, but a piece of a mosaic from the eighth century can still be found at Santa Maria in Cosmedin, and eight of the original columns from the old altar were moved to the new (current) St. Peter's. Somewhat unrelated trivia: Santa Maria in Cosmedin is also where the Mouth of Truth is.

2. There are 100+ tombs at St. Peter's,

including 91 popes, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II and Swedish Queen Christina who abdicated the throne to convert to Catholicism.

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3. Michelangelo's Pietà  is located at St. Peter's and has been the source of much abuse over the years.

First of all, four of her fingers broke off sometime in the 1700s as the statue was moved throughout the Basilica. They were repaired in 1736. But the worst incident was in 1972 when a geologist named Laszlo Toth ran into the Basilica and attacked the nearly 500-year-old statue with a geologist's hammer. Yelling "I am Jesus Christ," he took Mary's arm completely off from the elbow down, chipped a chunk out of her nose and damaged one of her eyelids. Since its restoration from the attack, the Pietà  has been housed in a case of bulletproof acrylic glass. You can still see where she was damaged if you look closely. The Pietà  is also the only work Michelangelo ever signed. The story is that he heard someone talking about this great statue that Cristoforo Solari had created. It was Michelangelo's statue, of course, and in a fit of pride, he went and added his signature to Mary's sash. He later regretted it and said he would never sign anything ever again.

4. There's a door that is only opened for holy years. It's called, appropriately, the Holy Door.

They're only opened in certain years 'Jubilee years' and people who pass through them receive a plenary indulgence. A better Catholic than I can explain what a plenary indulgence is.

5. The top of the colonnade in the square outside contains 140 statues of various saints.

That's a lot of carving, folks. But they were completed by many artists over a period of 41 years, from 1662 to 1703. Not all of the artists' names were recorded, but the ones that were (and which statue they created) can be found here.

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6. Bernini finished the 96-foot-tall baldacchino (the canopy-like thing over the altar) in 1633 and it's the epitome of opulence, which it was heavily criticized for at the time.

It's said that the bronze that makes up the baldacchino was taken from the roof of the Pantheon, which is another thing Italians weren't too thrilled about.

7. Climbing to the top of Michelangelo's dome will add 491 stairs to your exercise log.

And it's a scary climb: in some spots, the "staircase" is so narrow there's no room for railings, so there's a rope that runs down the middle for you to hold on to. And sometimes, it's both narrow and incredibly slanted. Not good for claustrophobics. You don't have to climb the whole thing, though. Taking an elevator will save you about 171 stairs.

8. The Scavi is the Vatican Necropolis.

Not the grotto — the grotto is the place where a lot of Popes are now buried, including JPII. The Scavi is only available by appointment, and there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to why the Vatican grants some requests and denies others. Only about 200 people a day are admitted into the Scavi, which is where the tomb of St. Peter supposedly resides. I mean, they think it's St. Peter. Exactly 134 bone fragments were found in a niche with the phrase "Petros eni," which means "Peter is here" in Greek. Carbon dating has found that they are the remains of a 60 to 70-year-old man from the second century. The tour guide also says that no pieces of bone found were determined to be feet bones. Some stories say that after Peter was crucified upside down, he was removed from his cross very quickly — just chopped off at the ankles instead of properly removed. So maybe? Anyway, that's the Vatican's story, and they're sticking to it.

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9.

There's a bronze statue of St. Peter thought to have been made by Arnolfo di Cambio in the 13th century, although that's something that's often disputed by art historians and scholars who think it was cast as early as the fifth century. Either way, this St. Peter has seen a lot of love: it's tradition for people to kiss or rub his foot when they pass by. You can tell just how many people have done it by the fact that his right toes have worn into a completely smooth surface, whereas his left toes are still individual digits.

10.

I seem to remember this enduring rumor that there were portraits of every Pope in gilded frames somewhere at St. Peter's, including empty frames for the upcoming Popes. How the Vatican knew how many empty frames to include was always a mystery, and so the speculation began that they knew the apocalypse was going to happen during a certain Pope's reign and therefore only provided the exact number of empty portrait frames that would be needed through that time frame. Silly, I know. But I can't find mention of this urban legend anywhere, not even Snopes! Did I completely make it up? Has someone else heard of it? Tell me I'm not losing it. Update: see the comments for an explanation. I know our _flossers would come through!!

On that note, I'm out for a few days. I posted a couple months ago about this road trip we're taking and it's time to finally make good on that post. If you're interested, I will probably document the trip in real time on Twitter just out of sheer boredom. I imagine 24 hours in a car (48 round trip) is going to lead to desperate measures to entertain myself. Otherwise, I'll definitely be doing an Armchair Field Trip or two about it when I get back.

I leave you in the capable hands of Jason English and Adrienne Crezo. See you Tuesday!

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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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