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7 Other Famous Abbeys in England

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ITV Studios

The most famous abbey in England right now is not actually an abbey at all — it’s a castle. Highclere Castle is the stand-in for Downton Abbey, the eponymous location of the mega-popular British series about an upstairs-downstairs household in the early 1900s. While Downton might be the only abbey about which people in the U.S. are currently talking, Britain is home to many a famous abbey.

The word “abbey” actually refers to a Catholic monastery or convent – usually operated under the spiritual authority of an Abbot. When divorce-hungry King Henry VIII denounced the Catholic Church in the 1500s, he also ordered the dissolution of all monasteries in England, Wales and Ireland. After stripping the estates of their valuables, the Crown either sold off the property or gifted it to loyal nobility. The only actively religious thing left about the properties was the name. These estates often stayed with families for centuries until a lack of funds or a proper heir forced families to sell – a pressing predicament in the aforementioned show’s plot.

Downton might be the abbey of the moment, but these are some others that have stood the test of time.

1. Westminster Abbey

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Located in the heart of London, Westminster Abbey has been the site of royal weddings and its fair share of funerals. Most recently, it captivated the eyes of hundreds of millions when it hosted the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Westminster is also the go-to site for royal coronations; it was featured in the Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech where King George VI must speak publicly during his coronation. More a tourist attraction than functioning house of worship, Westminster also holds the tombs of such luminaries as Chaucer, Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens and the ashes of Rudyard Kipling and Sir Lawrence Olivier.

2. Bolton Abbey

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The Bolton Abbey monastery was under construction when the axe of dissolution came down from Henry VIII, and the building was never finished. The estate was passed down through the Dukes of Devonshire, until the 11th Duke gave it to the Chatworth Settlement Trustees. The ruins are now open to the public to tour, which is what Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon did in episode 6 of their series The Trip (released as a film in the US). The estate earlier served as the inspiration for Wordsworth’s poem "The White Doe of Rylstone."

3. Glastonbury Abbey

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In its prime, Glastonbury Abbey was second only to Westminster in its wealth. After the dissolution, however, it was stripped bare and left for ruin. Located in Somerset, Glastonbury Abbey is believed by many to be the mythical Avalon where the famous sword-from-the-stone Excalibur was forged and where King Arthur died from battle wounds. It had long been rumored Arthur was buried at the Abbey, but in 1191 monks decided to confirm suspicions by excavating the rumored spot. Sixteen feet below the ground they found two bodies – the bodies are believed to be those of King Arthur and his queen, Guinevere. They were later reburied in the Abbey Church where they remain to this day.

If that weren’t enough mystery, it is also believed that the great-uncle of Jesus Christ himself, Joseph of Arimathea, was involved with the founding of Glastonbury. Legend has it that after the death of Christ, he traveled to Britain with the Holy Grail. After arriving on the island of Avalon, he placed his staff in the ground and it took root, growing into the Glastonbury Thorn. While there, he is thought to have buried the Holy Grail somewhere in the area.

4. Battle Abbey

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The bloody 1066 Battle of Hastings left many Anglo-Saxons dead and the Normans victorious. As penance for the slaughter, William the Conqueror promised the Pope he would build an abbey on the site of the battle. Though he died before construction was complete, King William's pledge was ultimately kept in the form of Battle Abbey. It was almost completely demolished by the 16th-century dissolution, gifted to a friend of the king and converted into a private home. Battle Abbey Estate would end up with the Webster family for multiple centuries, though many parts were sold off or fell into disrepair. In the 1970s, the Webster family put the whole thing up for sale and it was bought by the British government.

5. Fountains Abbey

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Fountains Abbey is so important it has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Unlike many of its peers that were met with ruin by King Henry’s dissolution, Fountains remains to this day one of England’s biggest and best-preserved Cistercian abbeys – an order marked by austere living and deferential architecture. The estate is like a living timeline, with landscaping and various buildings spanning the 12th to 18th centuries.

6. Northanger Abbey

Much like its sister Downton, Northanger Abbey is a fictional estate. It is also one of Jane Austen’s first published novels. The book’s highly imaginative heroine Catherine becomes enchanted with the home of a suitor – Northanger Abbey. Things get complicated with a potential dark secret lurking in the halls of this famous abbey. This is not one of Austen’s most famous works, but it might be one of the most famous literary abbeys.

7. Abbey Road

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It's the name of a world-famous recording studio, title of a classic Beatles studio album, and an actual thoroughfare in north London. Abbey Road might not be an abbey in the traditional sense, but it’s definitely one of the most famous abbeys in Britain. The so-called “zebra crossing” featured on the cover of the eponymous album has since been listed as a cultural heritage site by the National Trust.

This story originally appeared in 2013.

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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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