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Paw & Order: Animals on Trial

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In the history of the criminal justice system, animals have been tried for crimes by two separate, yet equally important groups: the criminal court, which tried animals for crimes against individuals, and the ecclesiastical court, which prosecuted animals that were a menace to society. These are their stories. Chung-chung!

"Order in the court? I'll have a ham on rye."

If your only exposure to pigs is Charlotte's Web, it might surprise you to know that they aren't all "some pig," "terrific" or "radiant." In fact, a majority of animal trials involved hungry pigs eating anything that got in their way, including, as horrific as it sounds, defenseless children.

In 1386, a sow was accused of devouring the face and arms of an infant that had been left unattended in its crib. The sow was arrested and imprisoned in the same cell as human criminals. During the pig's trial, witnesses were called, evidence was weighed, and a verdict handed down: guilty of murder.

On execution day, the pig was paraded through town wearing a man's waistcoat and white shirt to symbolize the equality of animals and men in the court's eyes. It's unknown if this was a common practice, but either way, the outfit only served to make the scene all the more dreadful when the execution began.

In the spirit of the old "eye for an eye; tooth for a tooth" rule, the convicted porker was brutally maimed just like the child was. Afterwards, still wearing the now-bloodstained clothes, the sow was hanged until dead.

A fresco painting of the event adorned a wall at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Normandy until 1820 when the entire church was whitewashed. An etching based upon the painting shows the townspeople, including women and children, gathered for the execution as though it were a form of entertainment.

While they were strict, the courts were not always so quick to condemn if extenuating circumstances merited an animal's acquittal. Such was the case in 1457, when a sow killed a five-year old boy. As she began consuming the body, her six piglets joined in the feast, and were caught at the crime scene, covered in blood. However, no evidence was brought forward stating that the piglets were actually accomplices in the homicide itself. Therefore, the court gave the little pigs back to their owner with the understanding that he would be responsible if they committed a crime in the future. The owner was unwilling to vouch for the swine, so the court confiscated them, sold them, and kept the profits.

Heavy Petting

While most trials dealt with crimes against man, sometimes animals were the target of human cruelty as well. But even then they were not always viewed as innocent victims. In cases where men had committed "the unnatural deed of carnal lewdness" with an animal, the poor creature was considered compliant, and therefore charged, convicted, and executed along with the human that had assaulted it.

A rare animal trial held in the New World took place in 1662 (a trial overseen by Cotton Mather, who 20 years later became known as the instigator of the Salem Witch Trials) when a Connecticut man named Potter, described as "devout in worship, gifted in prayer," was charged with numerous unnatural deeds reaching back 50 years. It was believed that Potter had been possessed by "an unclean devil," which forced him to commit these acts, but he and the animals were found guilty nonetheless. On the gallows stood Potter and his only living victims - "a cow, two heifers, three sheep and two sows" - all of whom were executed for taking part in the crimes.

But even these animal victims were occasionally spared the hangman's noose. Take the case of Jacques Ferron, who, in 1750, was caught with a female donkey.

During the trial, character witnesses came forward to say they had known the defendant for many years and had always found the accused to be virtuous and well-behaved. Of course they were talking about the donkey, who was acquitted and set free.

No one came forward to speak for Ferron, so he burned at the stake.

Criminal trials worked well for individual animals, but if the accused was a gang of zoological hoodlums, trying and executing them one-by-one would have been difficult at best. So the Catholic Church stepped in and held an ecclesiastical trial to determine if a special form of excommunication would be necessary to deal with the threat. Because excommunication was such a serious sentence "“ far more than mere execution - the Church hired lawyers to argue the case on both sides, something absent from human trials at the time.

You Dirty Rat!

In the year 1510, the people of Autun, France, went to their local bishop and asked him to "take care of" the rats that were eating the barley crop. Being a fair man, the bishop first instigated a trial, assigning Bartholomew Chassenee as legal counsel to the vermin defendants. Because his clients didn't have a very good reputation to begin with, Chassenee knew it was going to be an uphill battle to get an acquittal.

ratOn the first day of the proceedings, Chassenee argued that the prosecution had not specified which rats were being charged with a crime. This meant every rat in Autun, even the ones who hadn't eaten the barley, could be facing excommunication for a crime they didn't commit. Therefore, every rat across the countryside needed to be summoned to court to plead their case. So the bishop made every priest in every parish announce the charges, so as many rats as possible would hear when they should come to testify. Despite these special arrangements, no rats showed up for their court date.

To answer for his clients' absence, Chassenee pointed out that human defendants could refuse a summons if making the journey to court placed their life in danger. Well, every rat was under constant threat of being eaten by hungry cats, so there was no way they could be expected to appear in court unless the prosecution was able to guarantee safe passage. The trial was adjourned to give the prosecution time to figure out how to keep every cat in town from killing a rat on the day of the trial. However, no date was set to reconvene, so the case was essentially dropped without a proper verdict. Chances are the prosecution knew it was outmatched by Chassenee, who would later become president of the Provence (similar to our U.S. Chief Justice) and widely considered one of the finest, fairest lawyers in French history.

The Root of All Weevil

If a trial appeared to be headed for a stalemate, ecclesiastical courts would often try to work out a compromise with the animal defendants. Take the case of weevils, small beetles known for their voracious appetite, which were destroying the vineyards of St. Julien, France, in April 1587.

bollLegal wrangling delayed the trial for months (and kept both lawyers on the court's payroll) until late June, when the people were called to the town square. The prosecution explained to the crowd that the case had reached an impasse and asked them to suggest an alternative place for the weevils to live. After much deliberation, a plot of land was described in great detail including the location, the dimensions, the types of plants that grew there, and the topography that could be expected. This compromise was presented to the defense in the hopes the plague would end soon.

The case was delayed again until early September (that's five months the weevils were able to stuff their bellies on grapevines), when the defendants' lawyer refused the compromise, stating the land being offered was "sterile and neither sufficiently nor suitably supplied with food for the support of the said animals." The bishop decided that both sides should have independent experts survey the land and report back as to its suitability for the bugs.

Sadly, the final decision in The People v. The Hungry, Hungry Weevils has been lost to history. Over the last 400 years, the final page of the case file has been seriously damaged, most likely eaten by insects. I smell a conspiracy"¦

A similar case occurred in 1712 at a Catholic parish in Brazil, when termites were eating the walls and tunneling under the foundations of the small settlement there. The defendants' lawyer argued that the insects were only exercising their rights of possession, considering they were there long before the monks ever came and encroached on their land.

After a long legal battle, a compromise was reached and the plaintiffs provided a suitable location for the termites to live. It's written in the case file that when the verdict was read aloud in front of the termites' hill, "they all came out and marched in columns to the place assigned." The monk who wrote the document believed this was "conclusive proof that the Almighty endorsed the decision of the court."

* * * * *

While animal trials continued well into the modern age, they became less common after the Age of Enlightenment, when it was argued that punishment for breaking the law was only reasonable if the defendant had the mental capacity to understand and conform to the law. This same concept was later applied to human criminals who suffered from mental illness, meaning the modern day "insanity defense" actually has very close ties to these animal trials of the past.

But the primary argument against animal trials came down to the fact that an animal is controlled, not by man's law, which dictates how a person should act, but instead by a natural law that dictates how an animal does act. As this idea grew more widely accepted in society, animal trials were virtually abandoned as an outdated symbol of man's fruitless struggle to control the world around him.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]