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Holy Foreskin! A Brief History of Stolen Catholic Relics

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Last week a 900-year-old heart that allegedly belonged to St. Laurence O'Toole was stolen from a cathedral in Dublin. Although Rev. Dermot Dunne pointed out that the heart is “valueless” to others, the thief seems to have targeted the relic specifically, prying open the iron cage that held it while leaving more expensive items untouched.

While this might seem odd, the pilfering of Catholic relics has been going on for centuries.

Misappropriating Monks

© Fred de Noyelle/Godong/Corbis

The possession of a relic was a much bigger deal for a church in the Middle Ages than it is now for one big reason: money. Having a Vatican-sanctioned relic, be it the bones of a saint or a piece of the True Cross, meant that people were more likely to make pilgrimages to your church or monastery. Once at their destination, these traveling faithful would not only make large donations at the relic’s shrine, but contribute to the local economy as well.

So what did you do if you wanted to get a piece of the pilgrimage action but did not have access to a relic? Steal one.

In 866, the abbey of Conques was located along a popular pilgrim route, but it was of little interest to travelers since it housed no relics itself. Realizing they were missing out on a goldmine, the monks dispatched one of their own to the monastery at Agen, then home to the relics of St. Foy. The monk joined the monastery and spent the next ten years working his way up the ranks, until finally he was put in charge of the relics. He promptly ran off with them, making his decade-long undercover operation a complete success. With its ill-gotten relics, Conques became such a popular pilgrimage place that it became necessary to build a much larger church, a task that was easily paid for from the offerings of the faithful.

Despite breaking one of the Ten Commandments, the monks did not try to hide the story of how they had come into possession of the earthly remains of St. Foy. Admitting where they came from was a way of establishing the relics’ authenticity.

While the monks of Conques almost certainly put the most effort into obtaining their relics, other famous thefts include the pilfering of the bones of St. Mark from Egypt in 828, and the looting of the remains of St. Nicholas (Santa Claus himself!) from Turkey in 1087.

The Holy Foreskin

While a thousand years ago holy men would go to great lengths to acquire relics, one of the oddest heists did not occur until 1983.

Being Jewish, Christ would have been circumcised. That small ring of flesh would become a surprisingly important part of Christianity. The ceremony of circumcision, the brit milah or bris, was a favorite subject for painters and church walls often featured frescos of the act. The Emperor Charlemagne is supposed to have given Jesus’s foreskin to Pope Leo III as a reward for crowning him Holy Roman Emperor. Technically Charlemagne was re-gifting it, since legend says he received it as a wedding present from his wife.

Since relics were holy, and no one in the Christian religion was holier than Jesus, churches clamored to claim possession of the one true foreskin. At one point at least 18 towns promised pilgrims that their foreskin was the real deal. Over time most of these prepuces were lost or destroyed.

But the town of Calcata in Italy managed to hold on to theirs until just 30 years ago. On the Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord, January 1, the foreskin in its jeweled case would be paraded through the streets. But then in 1983, the case, and the “dense and fuzzy” piece of skin resembling a “red chickpea” that it contained, disappeared.

It is not just what was stolen that makes this particular theft so odd, though. The weirdest aspect of the story is that there is strong evidence it was stolen by the Vatican. And the cardinals did not steal it because they thought it was important; if they took it, it was so people would shut up about the thing.

Protestant leaders had been making fun of Catholicism’s claim to have that particularly intimate bit of Jesus since John Calvin in the 16th century. As far back as 1900 the Vatican had expressed concerns about the emphasis placed on the holy prepuce, suggesting that it encouraged “irreverent curiosity.” During the 1950s the Pope threatened the highest level of excommunication for anyone who even talked about the relic. Finally, during the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, the cardinals removed the Feast of the Circumcision from the church calendar.

Despite this, the yearly processions in Calcata continued, and the fact that this Italian town was wheeling it around on New Year’s Day like a parade float made sure that this foreskin remained front and center, so to speak. In the 1980s, when locals started writing about the relic for various Italian newspapers, the Vatican may have had enough. In 1983 it was announced that the relic had been stolen, and almost immediately the rumor started that the Vatican had taken it, perhaps in league with the local priest.

The Present Day

Stealing relics may be even more common today than in the medieval era. Besides the most recent burglary, at least half a dozen churches have reported relics stolen in the past two years. The thefts occurred everywhere from Los Angeles to Spokane to Dublin. In most cases, the relics were the only things taken despite the fact that their value these days is far more spiritual than monetary.

It was the Long Beach parishioners who found themselves in the most peculiar position last year, though. When a relic of St. Anthony went missing from their church, the congregation prayed to him for its return, a move that was all the more fitting since St. Anthony is the patron saint of “seekers of lost articles.”
Perhaps owing to these prayers, or just some good police work, the relic was recovered a few days later.

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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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May 23, 2017
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