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6 Saints With Rather Intense Stories

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November 1st is All Saints Day, a day to commemorate all the saints, known and unknown. In recognition, here are the stories of six known saints.

1 & 2. Perpetua and Felicity

Perpetua was a 22-year-old noble and Felicity was her slave. The two women were persecuted for their Christian beliefs in Roman-owned Carthage while Perpetua was breastfeeding and Felicity was pregnant. Perpetua documented their tortures, and her writings are the earliest surviving text written by a Christian woman.


When they were tried, Felicity was exempted from the death penalty because she was pregnant. Two days before they were to be put to death, though, she gave birth, allowing her to be martyred with her friends and loved ones.


On the day of their execution, the women were first whipped and then led into an amphitheater, where they were to be torn to pieces by a wild cow. The animal brutalized them, but they were not killed. They were then to be put to death by the blade of a sword. Felicity’s execution went smoothly, but Perpetua’s executioner’s hand slipped and pierced between her bones, failing to kill her. Perpetua then grabbed the man’s hand and guided the sword to her own neck. It was later said that she was so great a woman she could not be slain unless she herself willed it.

3. Symeon the Stylite

Fasting for a few days is difficult for even the most dedicated religious observer, but Symeon Stylites brought fasting and silent worship to a whole new level. In fact, Symeon was kicked out of the first monastery he joined after he abstained from food and water throughout Lent until he completely passed out. He then spent a year and a half in a small hut, where he again went without eating and drinking for all of Lent. When he emerged from the hut alive, it was considered a miracle.


After leaving his hut, Symeon moved to a small cave that was less than 20 meters in diameter. He sought solitude at the cave, but crowds of pilgrims began gathering outside the cave, seeking his counsel and prayers. Symeon felt he didn’t have enough time to dedicate to his worship, so he then moved onto a 13-foot-tall pillar in Syria.


While living there, his only sustenance came from boys in the village who would climb up the pillar and provide him with bread and milk. Throughout the next 39 years, he continually moved up to higher and higher pillars. Eventually, his last pillar was over 50 feet tall. Keep in mind that this was in Syria, where the weather can range from over 100 to -50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Symeon eventually passed away on his pillar. After his death, many other worshipers followed his example and, for a while, seeing Christians living atop a pillar was a common sight in Syria. These days, Symeon still holds the Guinness Record for longest pole sitting session.

4. Pope Clement I

Like many Christians of the Roman era, Clement was prosecuted for his beliefs. In fact, he was banished from Rome and forced to serve in a stone quarry in Russia. Upon arriving, Clement discovered the prisoners were being denied water and were dying of thirst. He then saw a lamb on a hill and struck the ground where the lamb stood with his pick axe, releasing a gushing stream of water. The miracle resulted in many of the prisoners immediately converting to Christianity. As a punishment for this deed, the soldiers working at the mine tied Clement to an anchor and threw him from a boat into the Black Sea.

When Clement’s followers went to recover his body, the sea drew back three miles and Clement’s remains were discovered to already be enclosed in a stunning shrine. On the anniversary of the date every year after, the sea would again pull back and reveal his shrine. One year, a woman’s son got stuck in the shrine after the sea rolled back in. A year later, the boy was discovered to be completely unharmed, still asleep in the shrine.

Eventually, Clement's bones were removed; they are now enshrined in the Basilica di San Clemente in Rome.

5. Agatha of Sicily

Agatha was a virgin who dedicated herself to God. Unfortunately, a Roman prefect named Quintianus set his lustful eyes on her. When she rejected his advances, she was persecuted, first by being thrown into a brothel. When even a stint in the brothel didn’t change her mind, Quintianus ordered Agatha’s breasts be cut off. He refused her any medical treatment, but when Agatha was in her cell, she saw a vision of Saint Peter, who restored her breasts and healed her wounds.

Eventually, Quintianus ordered Agatha be put to death by being rolled naked across a bed of hot coals. While she was being tortured, an earthquake suddenly occurred and the walls collapsed, killing two men, both of whom had played a major role in her torture. Agatha was then returned to her cell, where she died from her wounds.

6. Saint Sebastian

Sebastian originally hid his Christian beliefs from the Romans so that he could work as a prison guard and allow people to visit their relatives who were imprisoned due to their beliefs. When he did come forward about his faith, he was exceptionally convincing—to the point that he even ended up converting the local prefect and his son, who wound up becoming a saint himself. Sebastian also converted another local official and his wife, Zoe, who hadn’t spoken for the last six years. After Zoe became a Christian, though, her speech was suddenly returned to her.


The prefect was so moved by Sebastian’s words and actions that he set all the Christian prisoners free from jail and resigned his position of power. The new prefect was not so easy to convert. He was enraged by Sebastian’s actions and ordered him to be executed by a squad of archers. The archers loaded Sebastian with arrows and then left him for dead. When one of his followers went to find his body to bury it, she discovered he was still alive. The woman nursed him back to health.

As soon as he recovered, Sebastian went before the emperor and condemned him for his treatment of Christians. The emperor accordingly had him beaten to death by his guards and thrown in the city sewers. An apparition appeared to a local Christian widow telling her that Sebastian’s body could be found in a nearby field, completely undefiled.

Because he was believed to have been killed by the archers and then went on to be killed by the same emperor, Sebastian is often referred to as the saint who was murdered twice.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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