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The Bogus Bard: 5 Stories About Shakespeare We Wish Were True

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Shakespeare’s life is as full of fiction as his plays are. In fact, historians have taken decades to separate the legends and bawdy stories from fact. Some of the juiciest tales are now debunked, while others are new theories to fill in the holes in his biography. Here are five “to-be-or-not” stories of the bard.

1. Shakespeare stole a powerful man’s deer

The story goes that while still home in Stratford, the newly married Shakespeare was caught stealing deer belonging to Stratford bigwig Sir Thomas Lucy. Questioned and whipped by Lucy himself, Shakespeare felt so much shame he fled to London and became an actor. This scandalous tale was an accepted fact for centuries. Who wouldn’t want to believe Western literature’s greatest name started as a disgraced thief?

But while the Lucys did keep deer, scholars now find no evidence of this escapade, though four different biographers have repeated it. Most likely, it began as a rumor in the 17th century to explain why Shakespeare would leave predictable, comfortable, stuck-in-a-rut Stratford for the excitement of London.

2. Shakespeare stole his best actor’s girl

Richard Burbage was Shakespeare’s most celebrated actor, playing most of their company’s leading roles. Along with his father, Burbage provided his company with two theaters—the Theater and the more famous Globe—but that apparently didn’t stop Shakespeare from stealing his woman.

According to historical rumor, after a performance of Richard III—with Burbage in the title role—a young fan invited the actor to visit her secretly and to announce at her door, “Richard the third has come.” Shakespeare overheard the plan and raced to the lady’s room. When Burbage arrived and announced himself as told, Shakespeare sent word down that “William the Conqueror came before Richard the third.”

Shakespeare may well have scooped up women from Burbage, but nothing supports this story being more than legend.

3. Shakespeare was godfather to his own illegitimate son

Long after Shakespeare’s death, Restoration-era playwright William Davenant was one of four men commissioned in the 1660s with interpreting and adapting his works. To Davenant, born 1606, this was preordained: Publicly, Shakespeare was his godfather, but Davenant claimed just as publicly that they were actually father and son.

Shakespeare was close to the Davenants. William said he learned how close in a roundabout way at school. The Davenants lived in Oxford, where Shakespeare sojourned when on his way to visit his family in Stratford. Young William was summoned once from school to meet him. Questioned on the way by a teacher, William said he hurried to see his godfather. The teacher quipped that William should know better than to use God’s name in vain. William claimed to have been named after Shakespeare and maintained he wrote with his supposed father’s “very spirit.”

The most vocal supporter of this genealogy was—guess who—William Davenant. There was no real proof that he was Shakespeare's son. How claiming that he was helped his career can only be guessed, but were you ever forced to read William Davenant in school?

4. Shakespeare was God’s own spy

Shakespeare’s plays are full of conspiracies, even the comedies. The idea that he didn’t just write conspiracies but lived one as well is an enticing theory of his early life. Was young Shakespeare a reluctant Catholic spy? Shakespeare historian Stephen Greenblatt imagines so.

Queen Elizabeth I made a show of persecuting Catholics early in her reign. Will’s father John, as a Stratford official, was responsible for the destruction of the altar of Stratford’s Catholic chapel. But John was also a secret Catholic. During renovations to the Shakespeare family home in the 18th century, a book was found in the rafters: a “spiritual declaration” of the Catholic faith signed by John, with space for other names, and prepared by Jesuit priest Edmund Campion, executed for treason in 1581.

Greenblatt suggests this and other passing affiliations with Campion pushed the young Shakespeare into carrying messages between Catholic priests hidden near Stratford. These jaunts brought William close to 26-year-old Anne Hathaway.

Both parents deceased, Anne was very available. Did she provide Shakespeare with a release from the intrigue forced on him?

They married quickly in 1582. William was 18. Anne was pregnant, so there’s also that. She was left in Stratford while Shakespeare played around in London, suggesting the whole affair was born out of youthful rebellion. But until the sonnet “I was a teenage anarchist” shows up—which would definitively prove Shakespeare’s role in an actual latent rebellion—this lies squarely in conjecture.

5. Shakespeare ruled all of England

Did Shakespeare, a glove-maker’s son from Stratford, really shake up the Elizabethan theater scene? Many historians question whether Shakespeare was a pseudonym or even a complete invention overall. A dozen names have been put forth as the real Shakespeare—most strangely, the martyred Edmund Campion. Let’s go with the best: Shakespeare was really Queen Elizabeth I herself. I know, right?

In his book Players: the Mysterious Identity of William Shakespeare, writer and entertainment lawyer Bertram Fields admits the Queen is an outside bet. Her breeding gives her the education needed to plot those histories and tragedies, and certain sonnets could contain clues she meant to leave. Then again, would she have written scenes she publicly found abhorrent and, as Fields points out, suppressed or deplored them?

Other (flimsy) evidence lies in Shakespeare’s portrait included in the first publication of his plays, called the First Folio. Under computer imaging, Shakespeare without his beard is supposedly a dead ringer for the Virgin Queenif that portrait really is Shakespeare; it was done seven years after his death. Still doesn’t bode well for Anne Hathaway. But it would make a hell of a story for William Davenant.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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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.

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