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4 Other Popes Who Resigned

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Today, Pope Benedict XVI announced he would be the first pope to step down in 600 years. Even before that, the head of the Catholic Church giving up his office voluntarily was a very rare occurrence. While there are theories two or three of the earliest popes may have resigned as well, these are the only four we know about for sure.

1. Pope Benedict IX

The papacy was different in the Middle Ages. Many popes were corrupt, but few approached the levels of debauchery of the first Benedict to step down. He got the job in 1032 when he was only 18 because his family was powerful and had already produced two popes. Once he was running the church, Benedict didn’t bother with any of that Christianity stuff, preferring instead to have gay orgies in the Vatican. Contemporaries called him “immoral,” “a demon from hell,” and a “disgrace." One bishop even accused him of rape and murder. Since he was such an embarrassment, the cardinals eventually paid him to leave office. Benedict accepted in 1045.

2. Pope Gregory VI

Right after Benedict resigned Gregory became pope, which surprised no one since he was the guy who paid Benedict to leave. The church hierarchy frowned on the paying-for-the-papacy scheme and found him guilty of simony (buying holy offices). Gregory resigned just 18 months after he took over.

3. Pope Celestine V

Celestine was so pious he had to stop pope-ing because of it. Born to a poor family, he worked his way up in the religious ranks despite his love of living as a hermit in caves for years at a time. He was still living there in 1292 when he heard the pope had died. He sent the College of Cardinals a letter saying they had to elect a new pope as soon as possible or God would be angry. Showing an utter lack of creativity, the College elected the letter writer. There was only one problem—Celestine didn’t want the job. He tried to flee the country before finally being convinced to give it a try. But being pope didn’t agree with him, and he only made three decrees during his five months in office. The last decree made it okay for popes to abdicate—which he then immediately did. While Celestine wanted to spend the rest of his life in a cave, the next pope had him arrested, and he died in jail.

4. Pope Gregory XII

Gregory became pope during the most confusing time in Catholic Church history. You see, he wasn’t the only pope. He was the guy the cardinals in Rome liked the best, but there was also a French pope. Called the Western Schism, this confusion went on for almost 40 years. In 1409, a church council decided the best thing to do was depose both Gregory and the other pope, Benedict XIII, and elect a brand new one, Alexander V. Since all of the popes refused to step down and all had powerful protectors, the church now had three people in charge. Finally, in 1415, Gregory agreed to resign and spent the rest of his life in obscurity.

Note: Pope Gregory VI was added after this story was first published.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]