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Wikimedia Commons

The Mysterious Case of Santa Claus's Leaking Bones

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Wikimedia Commons

The body of St. Nicholas—the man Santa Claus is based on—resides in Bari, Italy. The church claims that the bones of the saint are secreting a sweet-smelling water called manna. Every May 9th, the priests remove a small amount of this liquid, which is said to contain healing powers. You can purchase some in the church gift shop. Here’s a video of the priest removing the manna in 2012:

What’s going on here? Why is liquid coming out of St. Nicholas’s tomb?

No Bones About It

The body isn’t even supposed to be in Italy. St. Nicholas was a Greek bishop who lived in Turkey during the 4th Century. Like many early saints, little is known about his life. It’s said that when his wealthy parents died, Nicholas gave away his inheritance to the sick and needy, thus gaining a reputation for generosity. In one story, a poor man was considering selling his three daughters into slavery because he couldn’t afford their wedding dowries. On three separate nights, Nicholas tossed a bag of gold through the window (chimneys hadn’t been invented yet) and saved the daughters from ugly fates. This story is the seed for Santa Claus.

When Nicholas died on December 6, 343 AD—still widely celebrated as Saint Nicholas Day—his grave in Myra became a popular pilgrimage site. In 1087, Italian sailors stole the body and brought it to Italy, supposedly to protect it from invading Seljuk Turks. Today, Bari still celebrates this theft with a citywide festival that includes the removal of the manna and a parade where a statue of St. Nicholas is carried from the harbor to the Basilica Di Nicola. (But not everyone revels in this ancient larceny: Turkey has demanded the body be returned, setting off a debate about who has the right to archeological remains.)

In the 900 years that Nicholas has been in Bari, the remains have been examined only once. In 1953, the tomb was opened for renovations and the bones were measured, x-rayed, and diagramed. At the time, they were found to be in delicate condition. Many bones were missing.

Based on those measurements, Santa Claus was not a jolly fat man, but thin and short with big eyes and an unusually large head. (Here’s a 3D reconstruction of his face.) He also had a broken nose, which support stories that Nicholas had a temper—supposedly, he punched a heretic during the First Council of Nicea.

So what about claims that the body gives off manna? The church says the bones have always leaked. When St. Nicholas died, the tomb in Turkey was supposed to produce fragrant oil that healed everyone who touched it. When the bones were moved to Bari, they continued to ooze liquid, which was bottled up and sent all over the world. Even when the bones were taken out in 1953, they continued to perspire so much that the linen cloth below them was soaking wet.

The Plot Thickens

Bari isn’t the only place that has St. Nicholas’s bones. San Nicoló al Lido in Venice also has some. For years, the two churches argued about who could claim the real Santa Claus. In 1992, Luigi Martino, who also led the Bari study, examined the Venice bones and said they were likely to be the same person. The explanation, such that it is, is that the original sailors may not have removed all the bones from Turkey and the rest were brought to Venice during the first crusades.

Oddly enough, the Venice bones don’t seep liquid, suggesting that whatever the phenomenon is, it’s only happening in Bari. Venice also has a bottle of manna dating back to the 1100s—or so the church thought. In 2002, scientists did analysis and radiocarbon dating on a sample of the manna and found that it was vegetable oil from the 1300s.

Experts say it’s unlikely that St. Nicholas’s body is giving off holy bone-juice that the public can buy for a tidy profit to the church. Instead, humidity may be causing the liquid. Bari is a port town and the marble tomb is below sea level. The priests may simply be collecting condensation.

Whatever the explanation, all that moisture can’t be good for Nicholas’s remains. In the 2004 documentary The Real Face of Santa, a small camera was inserted into the tomb so that forensic scientist Franco Introna could view inside. He was distressed by what he saw. The bones were lying in pools of shallow water and had deteriorated considerably since the 1950s. He said the bones needed to be treated, or they would be gone within 100 years.

“I am a little bit sad because, of course, this is the last remains of St. Nicholas,” he said, adding again that the bones should be preserved. “These bones don’t belong to Bari. They belong to all the world and to all the people that love St. Nicholas.”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]