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10 Secrets of the Vatican Exposed

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Our 9th annual '10 Issue' hits newsstands this week. To celebrate, here's an article on the Vatican from last year's edition.

By David Goldenberg

Vatican City may have fewer than 1,000 citizens and span only 110 acres, but it also has a multimillion-dollar budget and an unbelievably complex history. Understanding how it all works requires parsing through centuries of religious texts. Is the Vatican confusing and mysterious? Is the Pope Catholic? Here's a look behind the scenes.

1. Regular Exorcise!

Baudelaire once said that "the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn't exist." But in modern-day Vatican City, the devil is considered alive and well. The former Pope John Paul II personally performed three exorcisms during his reign, and the current Pope Benedict XVI is expanding the ranks of Catholic-sponsored exorcists throughout the world. In fact, Father Gabriele Amorth, the Church's chief exorcist, claims to expel more than 300 demons a year from the confines of his Vatican office, and there are more than 350 exorcists operating on behalf of the Catholic Church in Italy alone. Amorth also teaches bishops how to tell the difference between satanic possession and psychiatric illness, noting that those who suffer from the former seem to be particularly repulsed by the sight of holy water and the cross.

2. Where Thieves Go to Prey

With 1.5 crimes per citizen, Vatican City has the highest crime rate in the world.

It's not that the cardinals are donning masks and repeatedly robbing the bank, it's just that the massive crowds of tourists make Vatican City a pickpocket's paradise. The situation is complicated by the fact that the Vatican has no working prison and only one judge. So most criminals are simply marched across the border into Italy, as part of a pact between the two countries. (The Vatican's legal code is based on Italy's, with some modifications regarding abortion and divorce.) Crimes that the Vatican sees fit to try itself—mainly shoplifting in its duty-free stores—are usually punished by temporarily revoking the troublemaker's access to those areas. But not every crime involves theft. In 2007, the Vatican issued its first drug conviction after an employee was found with a few ounces of cocaine in his desk.

3. The Worst Confessions

Some sins are simply too much for a local bishop to forgive. While priests can absolve a sin as serious as murder (according to the Church), there are five specific sins that require absolution from the Apostolic Penitentiary. This secretive tribunal has met off and on for the past 830 years, but in January of 2009, for the first time ever, its members held a press conference to discuss their work.

Three of the five sins they contemplate can only be committed by the clergy. If you're a priest who breaks the seal of confession, a priest who offers confession to his own sexual partners, or a man who has directly participated in an abortion and wants to become a priest, then your case must go before the tribunal to receive absolution. The other two sins can be committed by anyone. The first, desecrating the Eucharist, is particularly bad because Catholics believe that the bread and wine transubstantiate into the body and blood of Christ. Messing with them is like messing with Jesus. And then, there's the sin of attempting to assassinate the Pope. That one's pretty self-explanatory.

The meetings of the Apostolic Penitentiary are kept confidential because they're a different form of confession. The sinner is referred to by a pseudonym, and only the Major Penitentiary, Cardinal James Francis Stafford, decides how the sin shall be dealt with. Presumably, a bunch of Hail Marys doesn't cut it.

4. Read the Pope's Mail

vatican-archivesThe Vatican's secret archives haven't been truly secret since Pope Leo XIII first allowed scholars to visit in 1881. Today, it's even more accessible. Outsiders are free to examine the correspondences of every pope for the past 1,000 years, although there is one catch: Guests have to know exactly what they're looking for. With 52 miles of shelves in the archives, the librarians prohibit browsing.


The most famous letter there is probably Henry VIII's request that his marriage to Catherine of Aragón be annulled, which Pope Clement VII denied. Henry divorced Catherine anyway and married Anne Boleyn (and four other women), leading to Rome's break with the Church of England. The archives also contain an abundance of red ribbons, which were used to bind 85 petitions from English clergyman and aristocrats.

5. The Pope Likes to Text Message

Pope Benedict XVI routinely sends text messages of his homilies to mobile subscribers around the world, and in 2009, the Vatican opened up an official YouTube channel to show various Papal addresses and ceremonies. The Vatican even released an iPhone application that contains multilingual versions of the Breviary prayer book and the prayers of daily mass. But the Pope's enthusiasm for technology isn't limited to cell phones and the Internet. The Vatican has also added solar panels to the roof of the Pope Paul VI auditorium as part of its commitment to fight climate change.

6. They Have the Finest Swiss Bodyguards

guardsNowadays, the Swiss have a reputation for pacifism, but back in the 1500s, they were considered an unstoppable military force. Swiss armies were renowned for the their mastery of a weapon called the halberd, a deadly combination of a spear and an axe, and their ground troops were famous for routinely demolishing legions of enemies on horseback. After Pope Julius II witnessed their ferocity in battle 500 years ago, he recruited a few soldiers to become his personal bodyguards. Ever since, Swiss Guards have pledged fidelity to the Pope, sometimes dying for the cause. During the sacking of Rome in 1527, for instance, three quarters of them were killed while providing cover for Pope Clement VII to escape.

Today, the hundred or so members of the Swiss Guard spend most of their time bedecked in Renaissance garb, twirling their halberds in ceremonies or manning checkpoints around the Vatican. When the Guards are actually protecting the Pope, they wear plain clothes and carry distinctly modern weapons.

7. The Mafia Dipped into the Collection Plate

In The Godfather: Part III, a shady deal between the mafia and the Vatican leads to the murder of the Pope. Was this based on a true story? Possibly. On the morning of September 29, 1978, Pope John Paul I was found dead, sitting up in his bed, after only 33 days in office. Although Vatican officials claimed the 65-year-old pope died of a heart attack, there was never an autopsy, and at the time, the Vatican definitely had ties to organized crime. Sure enough, in 1982, Vatican Bank president Father Paul Marcinkus resigned from his post after a series of scandals exposed the bank's ties to the mafia. Eventually, the bank had to repay more than $200 million to its creditors. But Marcinkus was never indicted of a crime. And though he was suspected of being involved in several mysterious deaths, including Pope John Paul I's, Marcinkus successfully claimed diplomatic immunity in the United States and retired to Arizona in 1990.

8. There's No Vice-Pope

Once a cardinal becomes the Pope, he's the designated leader of the Catholic Church and God's representative on Earth for the rest of his life. As with Supreme Court justices, he can resign before his death, but that's unlikely. (It's been more than 500 years since the last papal resignation.) Further, as modern medicine improves, even seriously ill people tend to stick around longer, meaning that a Pope could be alive but unable to perform his duties for years, as was the case with John Paul II. What happens then? Well, no one is really sure. A cardinal can take over the Pope's responsibilities as the Vatican's head of state, but no one else is allowed to carry out his ceremonial duties. In the end, many masses and benedictions simply go unperformed until the Pope either passes away or recovers.

9. Faith-Based Economics

The Vatican needs several hundred million dollars per year to operate. Its many financial responsibilities include running international embassies, paying for the Pope's travels around the world, maintaining ancient cathedrals, and donating considerable resources to schools, churches, and health care centers. So where does that money come from? Catholics pay tithes to their local parishes and donate about $100 million every year to the Vatican itself. But collection plates aren't the Vatican's only source of money. The city-state also gets cash from books, museums, stamps, and souvenir shops. (Get your limited-edition Vatican euros here!)

But that's not always enough. By the end of 2007, the city-state was $13.5 million in the hole. Part of the problem was the weakened American dollar, which translated into less purchasing power. Another contributing factor was the lackluster performance of the Vatican's newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano. To boost subscriptions, the Pope has asked the editor to spice up the layout with more photos and allowed him to cover world news stories in addition to the traditional religious fare.

10. Even the ATMs Are in Latin

ATM-Latin

The Vatican Bank is the only bank in the world that allows ATM users to select Latin to perform transactions. That's just one symbol of the Holy See's continued devotion to the language. Pope Benedict XVI has been particularly passionate about reviving the language and purportedly holds many informal conversations in Latin. (Pope John Paul II generally spoke Polish.)

The Vatican's Latin Foundation tries to keep the language relevant by translating modern phrases into the ancient tongue. In 2003, they released an updated dictionary that included the terms "rush hour" (tempus maximae frequentiae) and "dishwasher" (escariorum lavatory). Interestingly, the translations can have serious consequences. A recent U.S. lawsuit was brought against the Vatican for conspiring to protect a child-molesting priest, and it was held up for months as the Church's experts rejected the prosecuting team's Latin translations of terms such as "conspiracy to commit fraud."

This article originally appeared in the May-June 2009 issue of mental_floss magazine.

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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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