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The Quick 10: Cleopatra

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It was"¦ a lot of years ago today that we Cleopatra committed suicide via asp. So the story goes, anyway (see fact #9 for more on that possible myth). She was a fascinating woman, and speaking to that is the fact that not many figures in history have the same allure and air of mystery about them that Cleopatra still has. Here are a few of the stories that add to her legend.

1. Cleo was probably not the ravishing beauty history has turned her into. Most accounts of her say that she had a hooked nose and rather masculine features (that's her on the coin pictured), but that her charm and wit more than compensated for her lack of petite features. I'd have to say her power probably added to her legend of beauty over the years - power can be awfully alluring.

2. She had her half-sister killed to ensure that no one would be able to threaten her status and power. That's pretty cold.

3. Who but Cleopatra could spend ten million sesterces (for reference, a loaf of bread probably cost about half a sestertius) on a single dinner? The story - which is probably just a story - goes like this: Cleopatra and Antony were messing around one night and she playfully bet him she could spend the astronomical amount on a meal. He couldn't fathom any food that would cost so much and agreed to the bet. The joke was on him when the second course - a cup of vinegar - was brought out. Cleo proceeded to remove one of her pearl earrings, drop it into the cup of vinegar to dissolve and then drink the whole concoction. We think it's just a story because vinegar is typically not strong enough to dissolve a pearl unless the pearl was pre-crushed.

4. She wasn't Egyptian. Cleopatra was a Macedonian Greek - in fact, her father was a direct descendant of Ptolemy I Soter, Alexander the Great's famed general. She was the first person in her family to speak fluent Egyptian"¦ just one of nine languages she mastered.

5. Exactly how rich was Cleopatra? She makes Bill Gates look like a pauper. She had so much money, riches and assets that when Rome conquered Egypt in 30 B.C., her fortune was enough for Rome to be able to decrease the interest rate from 12 to four percent.

6. She ascended to the throne at the ripe old age of 17.

7. Many modern-day depictions show a glamorous woman with a dark head of smooth, straight hair with bangs. The only thing that's right about this is that she likely had dark hair. The rest of it is pure Hollywood. Cleopatra wore a wig of long, tight curls - no bangs. The only reason the other image has become so popular is that when the 1934 movie Cleopatra was made, star Claudette Colbert had a signature hairstyle that included bangs. Her hairstyle may have influenced Elizabeth Taylor's in the later movie.

8. Speaking of that movie, the real Cleopatra certainly would have approved of Elizabeth Taylor's wardrobe for the 1963 epic. The budget for her 65 costumes was nearly $200,000, an unheard of amount for the time. One dress was even made from 24-carat gold cloth - fit for a queen, wouldn't you say?

9. Was she really bitten by an asp? Maybe. Maybe not. And maybe it was two asps. Strabo, a Greek historian who was alive when the Queen of the Nile did herself in, suggests that it may have been a toxic ointment, not an asp bite. Other accounts written within 10 years of her death say it was a pair of asps that bit her. No matter which way she went, one thing is almost for certain: she didn't kill herself because she was so heartbroken over the death of Antony. That's a lovely story, but their "love affair" has been much embellished over the centuries. The real reason she killed herself is likely related to the fall of Egypt to Rome and the fact that she was told she would be paraded through the streets of Rome in humiliation. Add that to the fact that she lost an unimaginable amount of wealth and you can see that Antony was probably just a small part of her decision to kill herself, if he even factored in at all. Oh, and one other myth: it's doubtful that the asps bit her on the breast. Prior to Shakespeare's romanticization of the event, all accounts reported that she was bitten on the arm.

10. We don't really know where Cleopatra is today. Legend has it that she was buried with Mark Antony somewhere in Egypt, and we really only know that because Plutarch told us so - if he was wrong, then we're way off. There's some evidence to suggest she had a tomb built for herself in Alexandria and that it now sits at the bottom of the ocean floor with the rest of the ancient city, but recent excavations have found some artifacts that may mean the couple is entombed at the
Taposiris Magna temple in Abusir, Egypt.

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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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Library of Congress
10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.


One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.


WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.


Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.


Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”


The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.


Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.


Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.


The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.


Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.