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David Gottschalk

11 Times the Holidays Resulted in a Fa-La-La-La-Lawsuit

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David Gottschalk

Not everyone thinks ‘tis the season to be jolly. These 11 litigious people almost certainly ended up on Santa’s naughty list, if not the judge’s.

1. Osborne Christmas Lights

Clark Griswold’s puny display of 25,000 lights is nothing compared to the Osborne family’s 3,000,000. Six neighbors sued Mitzi and Jennings Osborne over their excessively celebratory Christmas display in 1993, which prompted the Little Rock couple to add more. A local judge forced the family to limit the illumination to certain hours of the day, and to only 15 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The Osbornes appealed, sending the case all the way to the Supreme Court. Justice Clarence Thomas was not sympathetic to their plight, and the original limitations were upheld. But cheer up, Griswoldians—you can still see the famous display at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida. They purchased the entire setup in 1995 and install it in an area of the park every year.

2. Toy Drive Disaster

East Point Academy, an elementary school in South Carolina, canceled their “Operation Christmas Child” annual toy drive last month after receiving a letter from the American Humanist Association, a group dedicated to removing religion from government. The group stated that they intervened on behalf of a “perturbed” parent who was concerned about Operation Christmas Child’s association with an international Christian relief organization called “Samaritan’s Purse.”

3. Fireworks Fizzle

The houses on Crown Point Parkway near Cleveland have been known for their Christmas lights and holiday celebrations for decades, even appearing on the Today Show, but one citizen decided enough was enough in 2012. Claiming that the noise and debris falling from a Thanksgiving fireworks display ruined his holiday meal and caused damage to his roof and car, Kevin Roberts had Santa deliver a neighborly lawsuit to the tune of $3000 last year.

4. Missing Menorah

Faced with the threat of a lawsuit over the lack of a menorah in their holiday decor, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport may have slightly overreacted in 2006. After a local Jewish Orthodox educational group asked for more balanced decor, the airport removed 14 “holiday trees”—but just for a long weekend. Public outcry caused the airport to rethink its decision, and four days after they were removed, the trees reappeared, still minus a menorah.

5. Songs of Holiday Torture

As of 2010, Sheriff Joe Arpaio had been sued six times over his cruel and unusual Christmas carol torture method. Aghast at having to listen to 12 hours of culturally diverse holiday music, inmates sued for up to $250,000 in damages. Sheriff Arpaio has been triumphant every time, though, and even issued a red and green press release after the sixth suit that said, “We keep winning these lawsuits. Inmates should stop acting like the Grinch who stole Christmas and give up wasting the court’s time with such frivolous assertions.”

6. Like Taking Candy From a Baby

At first glance, candy canes may not appear to have religious connotations. According to one old tale, however, they were first made to represent shepherds' crooks. When one student showed up to school with candy canes bearing notes explaining the connection, a principal in Texas banned the peppermint treats. Similarly, another Texas elementary school banned pencils that said “Jesus is the reason for the season.” After eight years (eight years) in court, neither principal was held liable.

7. Ho-Ho-No

Hey, here are two things that should pretty much never go together: company holiday parties and pole dancing. After a New York Parks Department supervisor was suspended for his part in throwing holiday parties that featured employees hitting the pole, he sued for back pay that he felt he should have gotten during the suspension.

8. Have Yourself a Merry Little Non-Denominational Season

A Florida woman sued her employer for firing her in 2008, saying that the dismissal was due to her refusal to tell customers “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas."

“I hold my core Christian values to a high standard and I absolutely refuse to give in on the basis of values," she said. "All I wanted was to be able to say ‘Merry Christmas’ or to acknowledge no holidays. As a Christian, I don’t recognize any other holidays." She did not win the lawsuit.

9. Size Matters

In Leesburg, Florida, a $1000 menorah was erected in Lake County Retirement Community after a retired lawyer sued. The resident was frustrated with constantly passing by other residents’ holiday wreaths and “cavorting reindeer” decorations.

10. Sales Tax Not Included

Let this be a lesson to all retailers out there: Never create a promo you’d really rather not follow up on. Perry’s Emporium, a purveyor of fine jewelry in North Carolina, promised customers their jewelry purchases would be free if three inches of snow fell in Asheville on Christmas Day in 2010. Guess what? Asheville saw a whopping six inches of snow that day, and Perry’s made good on their offer. One Grinch still sued the jewelry store for refunding him $7052 instead of the $7616 he had actually paid, saying that the sales tax shouldn’t have been his responsibility, either. A judge disagreed.

11. Say It Ain't So, Cee Lo

Whither the holiday spirit, Cee Lo? Earlier this year, a concert promoter sued Cee Lo for allegedly backing out of not one, but two holiday concerts he agreed to perform for the meager sum of $248,000 in 2012. But don't say Cee Lo is a Scrooge—when word of the lawsuit got out, his reps stated that it was the first time The Voice judge had heard of the deal, and that the concert promoter was perhaps being a bit unscrupulous.

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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.