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The Quick 10: The Arc de Triomphe

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It was this week in 1836 that Paris celebrated the inauguration of the Arc de Triomphe, 30 years after the triumphal arch was first commissioned by Napoleon. Such an old and historical piece of architecture definitely has a few stories within its walls "“ here are just a few of them.

elephant1. Before it was the Arc de Triomphe, the space there was almost dedicated to a giant elephant. Really. Pre-Napolean, French architect Charles Ribart proposed a three-level, elephant-shaped building that would be entered via a spiral staircase that led up into the elephant's gut. The furniture would fold into the walls and there would be a drainage system in the elephant's trunk. Ribart was all set to start building, but the French government ended up denying his request to erect the giant pachyderm. Go figure.
2. The Arc as we know it today was commissioned by Napoleon in 1806, not too long after his victory as Austerlitz. It took 30 years to finish, and no wonder: it's incredibly elaborate. Relief sculptures at the base of each of the four pillars show four victories and war scenes, the top of the Arch has the names of major successes during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods. Less important victories can be found on the inside walls, plus the names of 558 generals. The underlined names are to show that the general died in battle.

3. Sadly, Napoleon never got to see the finished product. It wasn't completed until 1836, 15 years after his death. When he married second wife Marie Louise of Austria, he had a wooden replica of the Arc made so the two of them could pass through it as they entered Paris as a married couple. No word on whether she was impressed or not. When Napoleon abdicated in 1814, construction on the Arc de Triomphe stopped for a few years. It resumed in 1826. Although he had already been dead nearly 20 years, Napoleon finally got to pass through the completed Arc in 1840 when his body was moved to its final resting place.

4. At 164 feet high by 148 feet wide, it's the second-largest triumphal arch standing today and was the largest until 1982 when North Korea deliberately built one a little bit larger. "Honestly, how many triumphal arches can there be?" you might be wondering... at least, I was. Sometimes I assume you guys wonder the same things I do, which may be presumptuous of me. Anyway, to answer the question, there are quite a few.

5. A few weeks after the end of WWI, Charles Godefroy flew his Nieuport fighter plane through the Arch to salute all the airmen killed in the war. It was caught on tape, which means, of course, it's now on YouTube. It's short, but here it is for your viewing pleasure:

6. As many countries do, France has a Tomb of the Unknown Solider, and this tomb happens to be under the Arc de Triomphe. The Unknown Soldier has been there since November 10, 1920, and lies under the inscription, "Here lies a French soldier who died for his fatherland 1914-1918." At that time, an eternal flame was lit to honor those who had fallen during the war. John and Jackie Kennedy visited the Tomb in 1961 and it inspired Jackie to have an eternal flame for her husband when he was assassinated in 1963.

marseillaise7. There was a little problem with the Marseillaise relief in 1916. It's said that on the day the Battle of Verdun broke out "“ a major battle between France and Germany in WWI - the sword carried by the warrior who represents France just snapped clean off. It was immediately covered up with tarps so citizens wouldn't interpret France's broken sword as a bad omen, but maybe it was: nine French villages were completely destroyed during the fighting, more than a quarter of a million people died and at least half a million were wounded.

8. At least two assassination attempts have taken place at the Arc de Triomphe: Charles De Gaulle narrowly escaped a would-be killer there during his terms (he survived more than 30 assassination attempts, so he was probably unfazed), and in 2002, a single shot missed Jacques Chirac at the same location. Chirac was reviewing troops in an open-top Jeep for Bastille Day when a gunman took a hunting rifle out of a guitar case and got a shot off before police took him down.

nazis9. Although the Arc is meant to celebrate France's victories, it has seen a couple of horrible defeats as well "“ Germans marched under the arch in 1871 during the Franco-Prussian War and Nazis did the same during the German occupation of Paris in WWIII.
10. The last time the Arc de Triomphe had a full-scale cleaning was during the mid-1960s. It was determined in 2007 that the Arc is looking a bit sooty again, so another cleaning is scheduled for 2011.

I know some of you _flossers have been to the Arc. What were your impressions?

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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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