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History's 11 Most Important Lists

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Good morning! It's the 11th of the month, which means we've got lots of '11 lists' for your reading enjoyment. We'll post one list every hour starting at 9:11am until we get tired. It's going to be a good day.

If there's one thing we at mental_floss know, it's this: people love lists! Even fancy pants NPR psychologists and professors say so, which means it has to be true. The list-love isn't a recent phenomenon: mankind has been using lists for ages, just look at the influence of the 10 Commandments throughout history.

With this in mind, we set out to create what should logically be the most irresistible list of all, history's 10 most important lists. All together now... "Lists! Lists! Lists!"

1. Santa's List

If you're anything like me, before your loud-mouth friend Sam ruined everything in the 2nd grade, this was by far the most important list of your life. Its significance also extends past children hoping for a new toy (that will doubtlessly be disregarded within a week) to the parents who can use it as a tool for manipulating their child year-round.

2. Benjamin Franklin's List of 13 Virtues

At the mere age of 20, Benjamin Franklin was busy creating his list of the 13 virtues for developing good character. You can read the whole list here, but basically they all boil down to: Look at Brett Ratner and do everything exactly the opposite.

3. Schindler's List

This list of Jews employed by Oscar Schindler during the Second World War allowed them exemption from the concentration camps. Schindler's wife once said in an interview that he "did nothing remarkable before [World War II] and nothing after it." I guess if you saved the lives of an estimated 1,200 people by endangering yourself and spending your entire savings bribing Nazi officers, you can rest pretty comfortably on your laurels.

4. Jousting Lists

In the Middle Ages, jousting matches featured two people with pointy sticks (lances) charging at each other on horseback. The "list" was the roped off area where the battle would take place. The "sport" was often used to settle disagreements or simply serve as entertainment for what would have been the WWF fanatics of the time.

5. Craigslist

Probably the most versatile list out there, Craigslist is the place to go whether you are looking for a new coffee table, a job, or things we're not allowed to talk about on a site like ours.

6. The Hollywood Blacklist

This group of actors, screenwriters, and directors were forced into unemployment by the House Un-American Activities Committee for allegedly sympathizing with the American Communist Party. The list was ever growing between 1947 and 1957. Today it still serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of McCarthyism.

7. Friedrich List

The 19th-century German economist's ideas had a large impact in the forming of the European Union. His economic principles are far too nuanced to explain here but, since he's already dead, let's just go ahead and blame our whole global economic crisis on him.

8. The A-List

Entertainment journalist James Ulme coined this term for bankable movie stars, developing a 100 point "Hot List" to quantify a star's value to a film. According to his 2009/10 list, Ulmar claims that Nicholas Cage is the 8th most valuable actor. Since then, Cage has made Season of the Witch (budget: $40 million / domestic gross: $25 million), Drive Angry (budget: $50 million / domestic gross: $11 million), and The Sorcerer's Apprentice (budget: $150 million / domestic gross: $63 million), so clearly the accuracy of this method cannot be refuted!

9. America's Most Wanted Fugitive List

The list publicized by the America's Most Wanted TV show has resulted in the capture of more than 1,000 criminals to date. In 1989, the America's Most Wanted list got extra list-y when an episode resulted in the capture of John List, a New Jersey Sunday school teacher and accountant who murdered his wife, three children, and mother, and had evaded arrest for 18 years. (Of course, we could have gone with the FBI's official version, but we talk about that one all the time.)

10. Listerine

At various points in Listerine's history, it's claimed to cure dandruff, colds and sore throats, and that it's just as effective as flossing.

11. Bucket Lists

Your "bucket list" is a list of things you want to do before you die. Why do I have a feeling that surfing the net for collections of tangentially related factoids organized in "listicle" form isn't on it?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]