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8 of the Undead from Around the World

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Zombies and vampires and ghouls, oh my! Almost every culture has stories of beings who rise from their graves or some part of the supernatural world and return to eat the living -or at least drink our blood. Here are a few of those tales from all corners of the world.

1. Vetala (India)

Some of the world's oldest tales of vampires come from India, where ancient Hindu stories were taken to other nations by traders and nomads. One of these beings is the vetala, who are dead but not at rest because the proper funeral rites were not performed for them. They are also described as evil spirits that occupy corpses. A vetal (singular) has uncanny knowledge of the past, present, and future which they use to confound humans, although they sometimes become a guard or helper to sorcerers who enslave them. Vetala live in cemeteries, but wander afield to kill children and livestock. You may recognize a vetal because the corpse's hands and feet are turned backwards.

2. Jiang Shi (China)

The Chinese Jiang Shi translates to "stiff corpse". If a person dies after a bad life or commits suicide, they may rise from the grave and prey upon the living. The appearance of the Jiang Shi (alternately spelled Chiang-shih) depends on how decomposed the body is at the time of rising. Because the corpse is stiff, they can only move by hopping. Jiang Shi are blind and may appear to have mold or moss growing on their bodies, and will attack the living and suck out their life force.

3. Bruxa (Portugal)

The female bruxa and the male bruxo are witches, not necessarily risen from the dead, but have a lot in common with our conception of vampires. The bruxa attacks children and sucks their blood. One can also change into the form of an animal, such as a goose, rat, or ant. They can be repelled by garlic. Sometimes these witches are divided into "bruxa má", or evil witch, and "bruxa boa", or good witch.

4. Ghoul (Arabia)

Ghouls are flesh-eaters. In modern usage, it refers to grave robbers of all sorts. The origin of the word is Arabic and even older than the religion of Islam. The earliest tales of ghouls paint them as demons or evil genies that live in the desert and can change shape to disguise themselves as human, usually as a beautiful woman, or sometimes a hyena. In the tales of the Arabian Nights, ghouls kill people in order to eat their flesh. Bedouin tales have ghouls inhabiting the bodies of those they attacked after eating part of them.

5. The Beast of Bladenboro (USA)

Beginning in late 1953, Bladenboro, North Carolina was the scene of unexplained attacks. A farmer saw a beast resembling a cat carry his dog off. Several dog carcasses were later found drained of blood. Hunters came from all over the country to hunt the "vampire beast" until the small town got sick of the hoopla. A bobcat was then shot and displayed, and the world was assured that the beast had been found. Although some reports have surfaced that the beast remains active, it hasn't stopped Bladenboro from hosting an annual festival centered around the legend.

6. Vrykolakas (Greece)

The vrykolakas is a monster that rises from the grave of a person who led a sacrilegious life. They are doomed to walk among the living, not to drink their blood, but to spread disease and cause death by sitting on a victim while they sleep. Even a werewolf can become a vrykolakas after death. If a vrykolakas knocks on your door, don't answer until the second knock, or you, too, will become a vrykolakas!

7. Nachzehrer (Germany)

The nachzehrer roams parts of Germany, particularly Bavaria and Silesia. It is a reanimated corpse that feeds on its own body as well as those of its living relatives! After climbing out of its grave, the nachzehrer takes the form of a pig in order to escape recognition as it seeks out family members to drink blood from. Then it will ring the church bells, which kills all who hear them. The nachzehrer lies with one thumb in the other hand, and always keeps its left eye open. Image by Flickr user wa?.ti?.

8. Zombie (Haiti)

In Haitian Voudou, a zombie is a corpse that has been reanimated by a sorcerer to be a slave. One famous case was a woman found in a zombie-like state wandering the streets of Ennery in 1937 who was claimed to be Felicia Felix-Mentor, a woman who died in 1907. The Mentor family took her in for a while before sending the woman to a hospital. They first believed her to be Felicia, although a physical examination later found she was missing a leg fracture Felicia was known to suffer. Another Haitian, Clairvius Narcisse was reportedly turned into a zombie slave after he was poisoned (with tetrodotoxin, which simulates death) and buried. Narcisse was allegedly dug up and given a hallucinogenic drug for 18 years while he worked on a sugar plantation, and then recovered after his "master" died and stopped dosing him.

There are just a few of the global legends of the undead -also check out part two of this list, 9 of the Undead from Around the World.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]