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Interesting Facts About 10 National Anthems

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Wikimedia Commons

If you listen to a bunch of national anthems one after the other, they all start to sound pretty much alike. The typical anthem is in the musical style of a march or a hymn and the lyrics have to do with struggles for freedom and independence, beautiful landscapes, and symbols of unity and pride. But every anthem has a story—not just of its nation's history, but of itself and how it came to be. The fascinatingly comprehensive site nationalanthems.info has the full background, lyrics, and music on "over 400 anthems, past and present." Here are some interesting facts about 10 of them.

1. Malaysia: an on-the-spot decision

The national anthem of Malaysia originated in a moment of panic for an aide to the Sultan of Perak. When the Sultan arrived in London at the invitation of Queen Victoria in 1888, the aide was asked for the music to the anthem so that it could be played during the welcome ceremony. He thought it would look bad to admit they had no anthem, so he hummed the melody of a popular tune from the Seychelles. He then told the Sultan what he had done, and reminded him to stand when the tune was played. It remained the official anthem of the state of Perak, and when Malaysia became an independent nation in 1957, it was chosen as the national anthem and new lyrics were written for it. 

2. Mexico: written under duress

In 1853, Mexico held a contest to see who could write the most inspiring poem to serve as the lyrics of an official national anthem. The girlfriend of the poet Francicso González Bocanegra tried to convince him to write something, but he wasn't interested, so she locked in him a room in her parents' house filled with pictures of scenes from Mexican history until he came up with something. She let him out after he slipped a ten verse poem under the door. The poem went on to become the national anthem, and the girlfriend went on to become the poet's wife.

3. St. Helena: never been there but it sounds nice

The tiny South Atlantic island of St. Helena is under British rule, but they have an anthem that is played when the RMS St. Helena (above) leaves port. It was written by an American named David Mitchell who had never been to St. Helena. He was working on the nearby island of Ascension (only 800 miles away) when a friend who had been to St. Helena suggested he write an anthem. Inspired by looking at some postcards of the island, he came up with "My St. Helena Island," the only country-western style national anthem in the world.

4. Netherlands: fun with word games

The anthem of the Netherlands did not become official until 1932, but the song had been around for at least 300 years before that. The lyrics consist of 15 verses and makes up an acrostic for Willem van Nassov, a hero of the Dutch revolt against Spain. Taken together, the first letter of each verse spells out his name (though in modern orthography it comes out as "Willem of Nazzov").

5. Andorra: a first-person narrator

Many national anthems tell a story about the nation's founding or history. Only Andorra's anthem tells its story in the first person, with the nation referred to as "I." The "I" of Andorra is imagined as a princess being protected by her princes (the people):

The great Charlemagne, my Father, liberated me from the Saracens,
And from heaven he gave me life of Meritxell the great Mother.
I was born a Princess, a Maiden neutral between two nations.
I am the only remaining daughter of the Carolingian empire 

6. Cook Islands: making beautiful music together

The national anthem of the Cook Islands, officially adopted in the early 1980s, was written by a husband and wife team. The music was composed by Sir Thomas Davis, the Prime Minister at the time, and the lyrics, in Maori, were written by his wife, Pa Tepaeru Terito Ariki, a tribal high chief.

7. Czech Republic and Slovakia: a 50-50 divorce

When Czechoslovakia was formed in 1918, it created an anthem by combining one verse from a Czech opera (Fidlovačka) and one from a Slovak folk song ("Kopala studienku"). When Czechoslovakia split up in 1993, the anthem was simply split up too, with the first verse going to the Czech Republic (above) and the second going to Slovakia (below).

8. France: parental discretion advised

Lots of national anthems are about the violent battles that gave rise to nationhood or liberation, but they usually focus on the glory more than the blood. France's anthem, "La Marseillaise," doesn't sugar-coat, keeping things incredibly gory, especially in its full version, which refers to blood-soaked flags, soldiers slitting throats, fields being fertilized with the blood of enemies, and metaphorical tigers tearing apart the breasts of their mothers.

9. South Africa: bringing it all together

Until the end of apartheid in South Africa, the official national anthem was the Afrikaans "Die Stem van Suid-Afrika," but a different song, "Nikosi Sikolei' iAfrika," served as the anthem for the African National Congress and the anti-apartheid movement. In 1997, both melodies were united (resulting in an anthem that begins and ends in different keys) and new lyrics were written, incorporating five languages. The song begins with two lines of Xhosa, followed by Zulu, Sethotho, Afrikaans, and English.

10. United States: not declared until 1931

"The Star Spangled Banner" was a popular choice for official state occasions in the 19th century, but it wasn't the only one. "Hail, Columbia" and "My Country 'Tis of Thee," among others, also served as anthems until 1931, when congress declared "The Star Spangled Banner" official. The tradition of playing it before every baseball game didn't start until WWII.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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