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The Dancing Plague of 1518

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Perhaps the very first authentic rave, the Dancing Plague of 1518 is one of the most bizarre incidents you'll ever read about. It all started, well, back in the summer of 1518 in Strasbourg, France. Now, I know what you're thinking: This sounds like a post you'd read over on The Onion. But verily I say unto thee, the Dancing Plague happened—though no one is exactly sure why...

Boogie Fever

Frau Troffea is said to have been the first person afflicted by the disease as she began to dance maniacally in the street one hot day in Strasbourg. This went on for, oh, about a week! Then, others had joined Troffea and little by little, over the course of a month or so, approximately 400 people were raving around Strasbourg. In case you don't know, Strasbourg is closer to Germany than it is to Paris. In fact, it's practically on the eastern border of France. Not that this has anything to do with the outbreak. But many of the dancers expired eventually from strokes and heart attacks.

Hot Blooded

Check it and see. She's got a fever of 103! Come on Lady, do you do more than dance? Okay, so maybe now we know the inspiration for the famous Foreigner song. At the very least, we've all got a good song stuck in our heads, right? Anyway, as the situation in Strasbourg got worse, the rulers of the land started to become concerned.

According to this article, they "sought the advice of local physicians, who ruled out astrological and supernatural causes, instead announcing that the plague was a 'natural disease' caused by 'hot blood.' However, instead of prescribing bleeding, authorities encouraged more dancing, in part by opening two guildhalls and a grain market, and even constructing a wooden stage. The authorities did this because they believed that the dancers would only recover if they danced continuously night and day. To increase the effectiveness of the cure, authorities even paid for musicians to keep the afflicted moving."

Mass Hysteria


Now, according to John Waller, who wrote not one, but TWO books on the event, the outbreak was caused by mass psychogenic illness (MPI), a manifestation of mass hysteria that is often preceded by extreme levels of psychological distress. According to Waller, a famine, caused by cold winters, hot summers, crop frosts, and violent hailstorms. In addition to the wide-spread famine, smallpox, syphilis, and leprosy afflicted the populace, as well. Waller believes this series of events might have triggered the MPI.

Saint Anthony's Fire

Others have attributed the outbreak to ergotism, which you can get after eating ergot-laced bread. Ingestion of ergot, a psychotropic mold that grows on rye, can lead to delirium, hallucinations, and seizures, as well as other symptoms. At the time of the outbreak, this wasn't called ergotism, but rather "Saint Anthony's fire," which sounds ever so much cooler.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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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]

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