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15 of the Greatest Gifts in the History of Presents

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Do you have a pal who always leaves you scratching your head when it comes to gifts? Perhaps something here will sound like the perfect present for the person in your life who has everything—everything except a 69-carat diamond, an eagle made of beer can tabs, and fire.

1. For Friends Abroad: A Statue of Liberty

You’re going to need a bigger tree. The official dedication ceremony for France’s gift of the “New Colossus” was in 1886, but the idea had been in the works since 1865, when French politician Edouard Rene Lefebvre de Laboulaye decided France should do something to honor the U.S. after the Civil War. The statue was built overseas and shipped to the U.S. in pieces. If you’re leaning toward some large statuary like this for your brother from another country, you should probably warn him that he’s going to need to clear some yard space.

2. For Your Shifty Neighbor: The Great Seal of the United States (Bugged)

UN Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge shows off a replica of the Great Seal of the United States to the Security Council. Soviet Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko smiles with amusement behind Lodge. © Bettmann/CORBIS (1960)

Think your neighbor is going a little Walter White on you? Before you call the DEA, try gifting him with a bugged Great Seal of the United States. In 1945, the Young Pioneer organization of the Soviet Union presented U.S. Ambassador Averell Harriman with a Great Seal, hand-carved from wood, as a gesture of friendship. Their definition of friendship was a little dysfunctional, though, because the gift contained a bug designed by famous Russian inventor Leon Theremin. The bug was hard to detect because it was extremely thin, gave off no signal and had no power supply (this was amazing technology back in 1945, mind you). Harriman hung it in his office at the Ambassador’s House, where the "Thing," as it was later called, went undiscovered until 1952 — three ambassadors later.

3. For Your Friend Who Loves Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: Savannah, GA

The only problem with this gift is that you’ll never top yourself. Next year, you’ll have to give your demanding pal a whole state. After that she’s going to expect everything south of the Mason-Dixon line. Actually, that’s sort of what happened in the first place.

General William T. Sherman had been working his troops hard to secure ports from the Confederate Army during the Civil War. After he captured Atlanta in September 1864, Sherman and some of his men disappeared for about six weeks; the White House received no communication from them and President Lincoln feared the worst. Then, on December 22, Sherman sent Lincoln a telegraph with the message: “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.”

4. For Animal-Lovers: A White Elephant

We all know people with pets that are slightly left of center. Hedgehogs, ferrets, pot-bellied pigs. To really impress one of these friends, follow in the footsteps of King Manuel of Portugal and give the gift of a white elephant. The unusual present was given to Pope Leo X in 1514; Leo was so enamored with the pachyderm named Hanno that he commissioned Raphael to paint his portrait.

Hopefully your animal-loving friend is a more responsible pet owner than Leo was. Believing that gold was the answer to everything, Leo supposedly had Hanno’s handlers feed him laxatives laced with gold when he got a little constipated. The gold proved too rich for poor Hanno, and he died at the young age of six.

5. For the Pre-Teen Who Has Everything: Tangier and Bombay

When you’re a member of a royal family, it’s not uncommon to be gifted a rather large parcel. A parcel of land, that is. When Charles II of England agreed to marry Catherine of Braganza in 1640 (she was two years old at the time of the agreement, by the way, and Charles was 10), the dowry he received included the North African town of Tangier and what was then Bombay.

6. For Your Friend Who's Always Quoting Lebowski: A Bowling Alley

A two-lane bowling alley was installed in the White House in 1947 as a birthday gift to President Truman. No matter that he hadn’t bowled since he was 19, Truman knocked down seven pins on the first roll at the alley, which was paid for by donors from Truman’s home state of Missouri and moved to the Old Executive Office Building in 1955. Truman didn’t use the alley much himself – he was more of a poker player – but the addition was a big hit with Truman’s staff, some of whom formed a bowling league.

7. For the Friend With a Green Thumb: The Hanging Gardens of Babylon

Legend has it the Hanging Gardens were brought to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar II for his wife, Amytis, who was terribly homesick for Media (Iran). To help her get over it, the Babylonian king created a mini-paradise containing all her favorite Median plants. It’s not around today because it was allegedly destroyed in an earthquake sometime around 2 B.C. Actually, it may not have actually existed at all. Despite written descriptions of the place, some scholars think it was simply a bit of flowery (literally) imagery. But don’t let that stop you from recreating it for an extra-thoughtful gift.

8. For the Friend Who Wears Too Much Jewelry: The Taylor-Burton Diamond

If you have a friend who loves gems and jewels as much as Elizabeth Taylor did, why not splurge and buy her (or him) the Taylor-Burton Diamond, a 69.42 carat pear-shaped diamond Richard Burton bought for his then-wife in 1969? It was the first diamond ever publicly sold for seven figures, but it proved to be a good investment. When Taylor auctioned off the bauble in 1978, it sold for $5 million. She used the proceeds to buy a hospital in Kasane, Botswana. “They need one badly and I certainly don’t need another ring,” Liz said.

9. For Your Favorite Frenemy: The Trojan Horse

We’ve all got one: the friend you have to get a gift for even though you don’t actually like him or her very much. Why not take a page from the Greeks and hook your frenemy up with a building-sized wooden horse containing a whole army? While your “friend” is admiring the craftsmanship, 30 to 50 men will jump out and destroy her small town. That, of course, is the legend of how Greece finally got into the city of Troy and ended the Trojan War in the 11th or 12th century B.C. Troy probably wishes that particular present had come with a gift receipt.

10. For Your Artsy Sister: Las Meninas

Your sister trolls Etsy for charming and original prints pretty much constantly. Giving her Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez will totally blow her mind. To thank his kingly patron, painter Diego Velázquez created a piece in 1656 that depicted the Infanta Margarita with her ladies-in-waiting, a dog and Velázquez himself. King Philip IV and Queen consort Mariana of Austria are shown in the mirror. The masterpiece can now be found in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. If your wallet doesn’t quite allow for the original, by the way, you could always go for a knock-off: Picasso painted 58 versions of Las Meninas in the 1950s

11. For Your Grandma, the Queen of Knick-Knacks: Faberge Eggs

Give one of of these jeweled beauties to your grams and she’ll think of you every time she dusts around it. The first Imperial Faberge egg was created for Tsar Alexander III, who wanted to give his wife an extra-special Easter egg in 1885. The bauble was such a hit that the Tsar did it every year afterward (we’re sure it will be a lovely tradition for you and your grandma, too). When Alexander III died, his son continued the tradition and commissioned the pricey trinkets for his mother and his wife.

12. For Your Pyromaniac Friend: Fire

It’s going to present a bit of a wrapping challenge, but it will all be worth it when you see your M-80-obsessed friend light up like the Fourth of July sky. But maybe don’t steal it like Prometheus did. The way the story goes, Zeus was hoarding fire for god-use only. Since Prometheus created humans out of clay, he was pretty annoyed that Zeus was being so stingy. He stole fire from the hearth of Zeus and gave it to his little clay people, then was immediately and severely punished for his good deed: Zeus had him chained to a rock, where his liver was eaten from his body by a giant eagle. The organ grew back overnight, so Prometheus suffered the same fate day after day. Just a little something to consider before you give the gift of fire.

13. For That Cousin on Your Dad's Side: An Eagle Made of Beer Can Tabs

It’s thrifty; it’s recycled; it’s a tribute to the United States of America. Your cousin will love it so much, you might even get a PBR and some pork rinds out of the deal. Gerald Ford received just such a gift from a Kentucky Cub Scout group while he was in office. The eagle, made to celebrate America’s bicentennial in 1976, was part of a Presidential Gift exhibit that traveled the presidential library circuit a few years back.

14. For Your Friend Who Lives for Trips to IKEA: A Carpet With Cleopatra Inside

It’s definitely a one-of-a-kind gift: an old, priceless carpet containing an Egyptian queen. Cleopatra needed an audience with Julius Caesar. The only way she could get one, though, was to sneak one. She had her servant roll her up in a carpet - though some historians believe it may have been bed coverings - and deliver her personally to Caesar. It worked: Cleo got her audience with Caesar, received his support in her battle for the Egyptian throne, and eventually gave him a son. You don’t have to go that far, though. The carpet will do.

15. For Your Friend Who Really Loves Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Like, Really Loves. As in, Maybe You Should Consider Calling the Police: A Book Made out of Human Skin—Possibly Your Own

To appease your possibly blood-thirsty friend, try a gift like the one highwayman James Allen gave to the man who finally brought him down. Back in the early 1830s, Allen indiscriminately robbed dozens of people, and was caught only when a man named John Fenno stood up to him and refused to hand over his possessions. When Allen tried to shoot him, the bullet bounced off of Fenno’s belt buckle and Fenno was able to catch his would-be robber. Convicted to 20 years in prison, Allen died after just a few years. Before his death, though, he wrote a full confession of all of his crimes. The day he died in 1837, enough skin was taken from his back to bind a book. It was immediately sent to a bookbinder, who dyed the skin grey and then abided by Allen's twisted request to bind the confession in his own skin. It was then given to John Fenno, as Allen had specified.

You can read it if you want, though I’m not sure you’re getting the full effect if you’re not holding a book made of human skin.

And Possibly the Worst Gift of All-Time...

A Video Featuring Women Biting the Heads Off Snakes and Soldiers Killing Puppies

Do you have a friend who liked to set fire to bugs with a magnifying glass when he was little? Does he now maintain a firm grip on a small country? This gift might be just the ticket. Back in December of 1983, Donald Rumsfeld met with Saddam Hussein as part of President Reagan’s Middle East Envoy. At the end of the meeting, Saddam slipped Rumsfeld a videotape. When Rumsfeld popped the tape in, perhaps hoping it was an advance screening of Footloose, he was stunned: the tape contained three minutes of female Syrian soldiers biting the heads off of snakes, then roasting them and eating them. In the same video, a male soldier holds down a live puppy and stabs it over and over, then tosses the lifeless body aside. The "gift" can be seen online - it’s obviously very graphic, and I won’t watch it, so click at your own risk.

This story originally appeared in 2011.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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