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10 Constellations that Never Caught On

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In 1908, Harvard published the Revised Harvard Photometry Catalog, and in doing so, established a list of 88 constellations that would later be made official to the world’s astronomers. One result: obscure patches of dim stars designated the Microscope, the Swordfish, and the Compass (as in, the thing you draw a circle with) now had the same status as legendary groups like Orion and Cassiopeia. And if some of those sound odd, here are 10 more that didn’t quite make the cut.  

1. Globus Aerostaticus, the Balloon


The Balloon was created in 1798 by French astronomer Jérôme Lalande to celebrate this modern advent in transportation.  While a scientific breakthrough at the time, the balloon’s fame as a constellation lasted about as long as Falcon Heene’s.  

Try to find it!  The Balloon once sailed in the space between Capricorn and the Southern Fish.

2. Machina Electrica, the Electrical Generator


Having apparently run out of Greek mythological figures, a surprising number of constellations—even the ones that endure today—are named after then-novel gadgetry. So a drab patch of sky became an electrical generator. However, it never quite sparked the imaginations of astronomers, and the Electrical Generator was scrapped…a decision that might seem regrettable when the next major weather event hits.

Try to find it! Machina Electrica was situated between the Furnace and the Sculptor’s Studio.  So, apparently, that section of the sky was basically a ratty loft.

3. Cancer Minor, the Lesser Crab

Several constellations have minor counterparts. Whether you see Bears or Dippers in the northern sky, we can all agree that there’s a big one and a small one. There’s a Major and Minor Dog too (the Minor Dog being so minor, it’s comprised of two stars). There’s even an astrological spin-off—Leo Minor—and this might explain why Cancer Minor was even conceived. Nonetheless, the Little Crab never caught on. Which is probably for the best, lest someone had been tempted to create Virgo Minor.

Try to find it! It’s a small, arrow-shaped group to the left of Cancer, aiming right at it.

4. Musca Borealis, the Northern Fly

As navigators began sailing south and charting the skies below the equator, there apparently proved to be more uncharted sky than ideas on how to designate it. Thus, the birth of the “southern” constellation, with fish, crowns and triangles all having southern twins. But it appears the night sky didn’t need two flies, and subsequent rebranding efforts including Apis (the Bee) and the Williamsburg-worthy Vespa (the Wasp) couldn’t keep this forlorn little bug from flying off into obscurity.

As for its cousin down south, Musca (nee Australis) buzzes around the pole to this day.

Try to find it! The Northern Fly was originally seen hovering near the rump of Aries, the Ram. Fitting.

5. Polophylax, the Guardian of the Pole

Pity the South Pole. Unlike the north, with the world-famous North Star to designate it, the skies around the South Pole are basically an uninspiring collection of dim stars. In 1592, a Dutch astronomer named Petrus Plancius attempted to give some romance to the south with the introduction of Polophylax, the blue-robed guardian of the celestial South Pole. This proved to be a dud, so much so that the constellation was replaced by a Toucan and a Crane…by Plancius himself.

Try to find it! Follow your nose. Sorry, Toucan joke.

6. Limax, the Slug

At least some of Plancius’s creations endured. In terms of goofy ideas for constellations—and a .000 batting average—no one can match the output of renegade botanist and all-around rapscallion John Hill. When, in 1754, Hill published his star guide Urania (a book whose proper title rivals Fiona Apple album names for wordiness), he littered the sky with not just Limax (the “naked snail”), but an Earthworm, a Rhinoceros Beetle, an Anteater, a Toad and pretty much every other icky critter he could think of, creeping out little sisters everywhere. None endured.

Try to find it! Limax once slithered beneath the left foot of the noble Orion.

7. Gladii Electorales Saxonici, the Crossed Swords of Saxony

This one was the creation of German astronomer and shoemaker Gottfried Kirch, as were a few long-forgotten orbs and scepters he’d dreamt up to honor some German royalty, in a failed bout of celestial butt-kissing. Still: Why some metal band hasn’t run with this name yet is beyond this author.

Try to find it! Pretty much right between Virgo and Libra...good news for you late September babies looking for a fun new sign.

8. Psalterium Georgii, the Lute of King George III

Sucking up to noblemen and women with doomed constellations is a depressingly enduring tradition (see also Frederici’s Regalia, Herchel’s Telescope, Pontianowski’s Bull, the Bust of Christopher Columbus). Thankfully, it’s now much easier to just pay $75 to name a star after someone. Plus, it’s no less official than Psalterium Georgii ended up being.

Try to find it! Today, George’s Harp can be found floating in the northernmost part of the River Eridanus, along with a couple of beer cans and a discarded tire.

9.  Sciurus Volans, the Flying Squirrel

“Hey, Rocky! Watch me pull a forgotten constellation out of my hat!” As the sky already had a different Volans at the time (in honor of the noble Flying Fish), this one had nothing up its sleeve.

Try to find it! If you can find the obscure Camelopardalis (the Giraffe) in the north sky, just look to its tail. And, yes, the night sky is probably the only place where it’s difficult to spot a giraffe.

10. Officina Typographica, the Printing Office

Nope, not just a press, an entire office. And if your desk is any indication, you’d need half the stars in the Milky Way to accurately represent the clutter. Inspiring no one, the printing office was downsized out of existence, its former space now occupied by a unicorn.

Like the electrical generator (and a whole garage-full of others) this dim, shapeless tribute to modern technology was the brainchild of German astronomer Johann Bode...but if his creations strike you as failures, don’t feel too bad for him.  He had a little more luck coming up with names for planets, specifically Uranus.

Try to find it!  It was just to the east of Sirius, the brightest star in the sky.  Tough act to follow.

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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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
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.