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By Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann - SMB Digital, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

5 Forgotten Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm

Original image
By Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann - SMB Digital, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

For every Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, or Rapunzel, there are literally dozens of much more obscure—and certainly more bizarre—Grimm's Fairy Tales. Like the one about the Mouse, the Bird, and the Sausage (and no, they don’t walk into a bar). On what would be Wilhelm Grimm's 231st birthday, here are some of the weirder Grimms’ tales that didn’t quite merit the Disney treatment.

1. THE MOUSE, THE BIRD, AND THE SAUSAGE

A mouse, a bird and a sausage set up house together and for awhile, and things were going well: The bird’s job was to fly into the forest every day and bring back wood; the mouse carried the water, lit the fires, and set the table; the sausage did the cooking, making sure their meals were properly flavored by rolling around in them (of course).

But one day, the bird’s friends in the forest started making fun of him, calling him a poor sap and claiming that he did all the hard work while the others got to stay home and relax. He came home that day and demanded that they try a more equitable system of chores, and they drew lots to determine who did what.

Well, the sausage was tasked with gathering wood, but was gobbled up by a dog when he entered the forest. The mouse was tasked with making the meal, but when she slid through the vegetables like the sausage used to, she got stuck and died. And the bird was supposed to gather the water and light the fires, but somehow he managed to set the house on fire, and then, while trying to draw up a bucket of water from the well to put it out, get tangled in the bucket and pulled into the well himself, where he drowned. The moral of this story appears to be know your place. Also, don’t shack up with a talking cured meat.

2. CAT AND MOUSE IN PARTNERSHIP

A cat convinced a mouse to move in with him, and for a time all was well for the cross-species couple. Until the mouse and the cat decided to put aside a jar of fat for the lean months, storing the jar under the altar at a nearby church. The greedy cat decided one day that he’d just mosy off to the church and have a taste of the fat, giving the mouse some cooked up story about how he was godfather to a kitten and needed to attend the christening. Three times he gets a hankering for the fat, three times he makes up a newborn kitten and a christening, and until finally, the jar is emptied. Then, when the cold wind blows round their domicile, the mouse suggests that it’s time to break into the jar, but of course, when they rock up at the church, the jar is empty. Mousie puts it all together, so the cat eats her. Never, ever trust a cat. Especially if you’re a mouse.

3. RIFFRAFF

So, a rooster and a hen go out carousing, build a carriage out of nutshells, somehow get a duck to harness herself to it, then pick up a hitchhiking pin and needle, who’ve had a few too many at the last pub and are on their way to an inn. This motley crew reaches the inn, and at first, the innkeeper isn’t too keen on letting them stay—they look a bit rough. But they offer him an egg the hen had laid, plus the duck to sweeten the deal, so he agrees.

The next morning, the rooster and the hen wake early, steal back the egg and eat it (cannibals!), stick the pin in the innkeepers towel and the needle in his armchair, then fly away (anyone who’s ever seen Chicken Run knows that’s just not possible). The duck, meanwhile, had scooted off down to the brook.

The innkeeper wakes up and washes his face—earning himself a terrible scratch from the pin in his towel—and finds the eggshells in the kitchen. Hoping to collect himself after his horrible morning, he sits down in his armchair, only to be stabbed in the buttocks by the needle. He swears then and there never to let “riffraff” stay at his inn. By which we assume he means talking tailor’s tools and anthropomorphized fowl. 

4. THE STRANGE FEAST

A blood sausage invited a liver sausage to her house for dinner, and the liver sausage gladly accepted. But when she crossed the threshold of the blood sausage’s abode, she saw a great many strange things: a broom and a shovel fighting on the stairs, a monkey with a wound on his head, and more. The liver sausage was frightened by all of this, of course, and when she entered the blood sausage’s rooms, she told her what she’d seen. The blood sausage pretended not to hear, or just brushed off the liver sausage’s worries, before retreating to the kitchen to check on the meal. While the liver sausage was alone in the room, she heard a voice: “Let me warn you, liver sausage, you’re in a bloody murderous trap. You’d better get out quickly if you value your life!” The voice didn’t have to warn the liver sausage twice—she ran out the door and didn’t stop running until she’d hit the street. When she turned around, she could see the blood sausage high up in the attic window, holding a long, gleaming knife, and shouting, “If I had caught you, I would have had you!”

Say what now…?

5. HURLEBURLEBUTZ

Once upon a time, a king was lost in a deep forest when, suddenly, a small white dwarf appeared to him. The dwarf told the king he’d help him find his way out of the forest in return for the king’s youngest daughter. The king, finding himself afraid in the deep, dark wood, agreed. The dwarf delivered the king safely back to his castle and told him he’d be back in a week for his daughter. 

Now, of course the king was sad—his youngest was his favorite. But his daughters, once he’d told them the deal, said not to worry, we’ll soon get rid of the dwarf. A week later, the daughters found an unsuspecting cowherd’s daughter, kitted her out in pretty clothes and told her to go with the first person who came to fetch her. That person was a fox, who said, “Sit down on my furry tail, Hurleburlebutz! Off to the forest!” Off they went, but when the fox ordered the cowherd’s daughter to pick lice out of his fur and she readily agreed, he knew he had the wrong lady. Back to the castle with you! A week later, the fox came back and this time, it was the gooseherd’s daughter he took with him to the forest; another attempted delousing, and he knew he had the wrong lady. Back to the castle!

The third time the fox returned, the king gave over his daughter and the fox carried her into the forest. This time, when he demanded a delousing, she cried, “I’m a king’s daughter and yet I must delouse a fox!” He knew he had the right bride, so he transformed himself back into the little white dwarf from the beginning of the story. The couple lived together happily for awhile, until one day, the dwarf said, “I’ve got to go away, but three white doves will soon come flying here. When they swoop down to the ground, catch the middle one. Once you’ve got it, cut off its head right away. But pay attention and make sure you’ve got the middle dove, or it’ll be disaster.” The doves came, the princess caught the middle one, hacked off its head and poof! A handsome prince appeared! Turns out, the white dwarf had been under a nasty fairy’s spell and this whole complicated charade was the only way to lift it. Obviously.

Now in truth, this one isn’t really all that different from, say, Cinderella or Snow White. But in terms of narrative and plot, you have to wonder—what the…?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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