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The Most Frightening Dance You'll Ever See

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Ed note: This post has been sponsored by the Warner Brother's film Invictus, out on DVD and Blu-ray on May 18th. Be sure to keep an eye out for a rugby quiz tomorrow, and if you haven't already, enter our best-rugby-stories contest here.

by Chris Connolly

The haka is the most frightening dance you'll ever see. And that's its purpose. It is a Maori war dance, and each violent movement is designed to intimidate the enemy.

haka.jpgLined up in rows facing their opponents, dancers chant and stomp passionately while slapping their elbows, chests, and thighs. They bulge their eyes, wag their tongues, and twist their faces into scowls. To dance the haka, one needs to exude total confidence and commitment, and for years, it was the ultimate way for the Maori to ready themselves for battle.


Before New Zealand was colonized in the mid-1800s, the Maori used the haka to prepare for intertribal warfare. But after the British moved in, the dance found a new purpose—helping to fire up rebellions against Europeans settlers. Unfortunately, the dance was no match for their enemy's firearms. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Maori had lost most of their ancestral lands, and their culture was quickly fading. War and sickness had whittled down their population to fewer than 50,000 people.

Fortunately, a resilient group of Maori leaders emerged from this bleak landscape to defend their people's way of life. Specifically, an inspirational activist named Apirana Ngata engineered reforms that increased Maori political power and preserved Maori customs. Slowly, results began to show—and the proof was in the haka.

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In 1905, New Zealand's All Blacks rugby team (above) performed the dance as a warm-up while on tour in England. The team, which included both Maori and white players, represented all of New Zealand, and so did the haka. Some members of the British audience were baffled and outraged by the chant, but most appreciated the power of the ritual and the way it excited players and fans alike. Since then, the haka has become not only the All Blacks' trademark, but also a symbol of New Zealand unity. The dance is performed at government functions and cultural events, and it's even returned to the battlefield, albeit in a different form. The New Zealand military has scripted its own haka, which begins and ends with performances by female soldiers, as a nod to their role in protecting the country. The dance that used to stir men to war has become a symbol for equality and peace. Once a show of Maori defiance, today, the haka stands for New Zealand's solidarity. [Image courtesy of Archives.govt.nz.]

The Rugby Salute to Women

There have been many variations of the haka throughout history, but the most famous is the All Blacks' trademark rugby dance, Ka Mate. It tells the story of a great Maori chief named Te Rauparaha and his daring escape from a rival tribe. While hiding in a sweet potato pit, Te Rauparaha's enemies began chanting incantations to draw him out. But before the magic could take effect, the wife of a friendly chief blocked Te Rauparaha from the spells using the potent power of her female sexuality. Te Rauparaha was saved, and he was so thrilled by his narrow escape that he composed Ka Mate. The lyrics were later adopted by the All Blacks for their pre-game haka, and a tradition was born. When performed by 20 or more heavily muscled rugby players, this tribute to women is one of the most compelling sights in sports.

Don't Mess With Texas' Haka

Sports teams are some of the most superstitious groups in the world. If something works for one team, you're bound to see others trying out the same thing. So it has gone for the All Blacks' rugby haka. Nowadays, copycat dances have emerged in some unexpected places—from the University of Hawaii to the Mormon haven of Utah's Brigham Young University.

Perhaps most notable, however, is the hakamania of Euless, Texas. During the past 20 years, about 4,000 people migrated there from the Pacific island nation of Tonga, but they never quite felt like they belonged. That is, until the glorious day when their sons and grandsons began warming up Euless' Trinity High School football games with the haka. Tonga and Maori share a common Polynesian lineage, so the new residents felt right at home. Before long, Texas football fans of all races were chanting the words in unison with the players and sporting T-shirts that read "Got Haka?" The dance promoted team unity and, apparently, also terrified the competition. In 2005, Trinity High School won the state football championship. Here's a recent clip:

See Also: The Rugby Rivalry that Brought New Zealand to the Brink of Civil War

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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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iStock
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technology
Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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