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Detail of "Coral Nebula" by Aelita Andre (photo courtesy of Deborah Greenhut)

6 Prodigies With Pacifiers

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Detail of "Coral Nebula" by Aelita Andre (photo courtesy of Deborah Greenhut)

Everyone’s child is beautiful and smart and precious and great. There is no disputing that. But, there are some children in the world who may have “found their calling” quicker than their peers. The list below features some smart kiddos in the worlds of art, music, and sports, as well as some general brainiacs who make us all feel like underachievers.

1. Aelita Andre, Pint-sized Pollock

Aelita Andre is a well-known Australian abstract painter. Her material of choice is canvas, with acrylic paint in many colors, but she also includes glitter, masks, fabrics, and plastic dinosaurs in her work. And did I mention that she’s six?

Aelita’s parents are both artists, and they say she started taking an interest in their work when she was only nine months old. When Aelita was 22 months old, her paintings were shown to Mark Jamieson, director of Brunswick Street Gallery. Jamieson agreed to include the works in a group exhibition at the gallery, unaware that his newest artist was not yet two. Over the next few years, Aelita was able to sell her paintings for approximately $30,000.

Aelita had her first solo exhibition at the Agora Gallery in New York City in the summer of 2011. She was reported to have visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art with her family at the time, asking her mom and dad “Where are my paintings?”

2. Ryan Wang, Mini Mozart

“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”

“Practice, practice, practice.”

That must be the motto for Ryan Wang, who played at the legendary concert venue this year as part of the 2013 American Protégé International Piano and Strings Competition. Wang has been playing piano for less than two years, but at five, that’s nearly half his lifetime. In comparison, Mozart learned his first musical piece at the same age.

Wang, who is from Canada, began his musical journey playing the keyboard for fun. His mother noticed his talent and found him a piano teacher. His favorite song is “Variations on a Russian Theme.” In a television interview with Ellen DeGeneres a few months ago, Wang told the host that he never gets nervous, and that his favorite subject is math. “But it’s just ‘baby’ math,” he added.

3. Titus Ashby, Baby Baller

Titus Ashby became a viral sensation this year for his ability to sink baskets with more ease than many NBA players. “Trick-shot Titus,” who is two, appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live in June and was pitted against the Shaquille O’Neal in a friendly shootout. Titus hit eight buckets, while Shaq made none. He appeared on Kimmel’s show again to face Kobe Bryant, and the shootout ended in a tie.

Titus is originally from Kansas, and is not just a one-trick pony. He can hit layups, and jumpers. He can bounce the ball off the floor and into the hoop. He can hit the ball off the backboard of one basket and through the rim of another. And, he can shoot blindfolded. Titus’ skills are reminiscent of the games of HORSE Larry Bird and Michael Jordan used to play for McDonald’s. Those commercials first aired 20 years ago.

4. Onafujiri “Fuji” Remet, Petite Paparazzo

In just three short years (or, you know, his whole lifetime), Onafujiri “Fuji” Remet has amassed a portfolio of more than 3000 photographs. Born in Nigeria to a very creative family (his father and two sisters are artists), he received his first camera before the age of one, and it’s estimated that the device was approximately one-fourth of his size.

Fuji’s pictures encapsulate a wide range of Nigerian culture—from the street vendors, to the traffic, to his sister, Onarietta, dressed in native garb. He shared some of his work with CNN this past summer, in addition to being showcased at an exhibition in the city of Lagos, Nigeria. But, according to his mother, photography is nothing more than playtime fun for her toddler, and Fuji enjoys capturing the things he sees in his everyday life.   

5. and 6. Elise Tan-Roberts and Adam Kirby, Mensa Minds

According to the Telegraph, London’s Elise Tan-Roberts was just five months old when she said her first word, and eight months old when she started to walk. At 16 months, she could count to 10. When her parents took her for an I.Q. test in 2009, Elise notched an I.Q of 156. At two, she became the youngest person ever to join the high-I.Q. society Mensa.

Adam Kirby, also from London, joined Mensa this year. Slightly older than Elise was when she joined the organization, Adam became the youngest male to join Mensa at 2 years and five months old. With an I.Q. of 141, it is reported that Adam potty-trained himself after reading a book on the topic. Just as a reference point, the average IQ is 100.

Have these real-life baby prodigies inspired you to cultivate genius in your little one? The latest edition of our Floss:Handmade initiative features fun, smart baby stuff you won't find just anywhere: a statistically-inspired jumper, wooden nursery decor featuring images from actual pages of vintage children's books and a jumper complete with pocket protector and bow tie that just screams geeky class!


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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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Library of Congress
10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.


One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.


WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.


Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.


Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”


The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.


Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.


Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.


The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.


Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.