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10 Horses to Kick Off the Year of the Horse

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Tomorrow begins the Lunar New Year Festival, celebrated in many Asian countries. In China, the festival lasts two weeks and will usher in the Year of the Horse. I "rounded up" some interesting horses that deserve to be remembered on this auspicious occasion. This is far from an exhaustive list of famous horses, just a few that you may find interesting. Please feel free to tell us about your favorites in the comments. 

1. The War Horse: Sgt. Reckless

In 1952, a young Korean sold his beloved horse Ah Chim Hai (Flame in the Morning) to the U.S. Marines so he could purchase a prosthetic leg for his sister, who lost hers to a land mine. The Marines renamed the mare Reckless. She was very friendly with the troops, sharing their rations, entering their quarters, and snuggling with them on cold nights. Her appetite was famous, as she loved candy, beer, eggs, and coffee, and would even eat poker chips or a blanket if she was feeling stubborn.

Reckless was used to carry ammunition. Her finest hour came during the five-day Battle of Outpost Vega in March of 1953, when she made 51 trips to the front in just one day -most of them unaccompanied- to ferry ammunition in and wounded servicemen out. That was a total of 9,000 pounds of ammunition over 35 miles, under enemy fire! Reckless was wounded twice, but kept going.

For her bravery, Reckless was promoted to Sergeant. She was eventually awarded two Purple Hearts and a slew of other medals. After the war, Sgt. Reckless was shipped to the U.S. She arrived in San Francisco on November 10, 1954, the Marine Corps birthday, and was feted at the Marine Corps Birthday Ball that evening, where she ate both the cake and the flowers. Just before a parade was held for her promotion, she ate her custom-made blanket, and a substitute had to be constructed quickly to hold her medals. Sgt. Reckless lived peacefully at Camp Pendleton until her death in 1968. See a video about Reckless here

2. The Wooden Horse: Trojan Horse

The tale of the Trojan Horse is in Homer’s Odyssey and in the poem Aeneid by Virgil. It tells of the siege of Troy by the Greeks. After some years, the Greeks appeared to retreat from Troy, but left behind a huge wooden horse. Despite warnings from elders, the Trojans brought the horse into their citadel. That night, as they slept or celebrated their apparent victory, a unit of Greek soldiers crept out of their hiding place inside the horse and slaughtered the Trojans. The story gave us the phrase “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” and “Trojan horse” became a term for computer malware that sneaks in by appearing as a benignly useful application.

3. The TV Horse: Mister Ed

Mister Ed was a television series about a talking horse that aired from 1961 to 1966. Mister Ed belonged to architect Wilbur Post, who was the only person Ed would talk to. As a consequence, Wilbur had to hide the fact that his horse talked to him, a device that fueled many of the plot lines. The show was directed by Arthur Lubin and the horse trainer was Les Hilton. Both had previously worked on the movie series Francis the Talking Mule, which was the direct inspiration for Mister Ed. Mister Ed was played by a show horse named Bamboo Harvester.

The horse’s dialogue was a voiceover, of course, of course, but how did they get the horse to move his lips? The story given by the show’s producers is that they gave Mister Ed peanut butter to chew on, but others believe that that method was supplemented by a nylon filament used as a bit to control the horse’s lip and head movements.

4. The Mythological Horse: Sleipnir

Artwork by Brianna Cherry Garcia.

In Norse mythology, Sleipnir was Odin’s horse, the finest horse in all the world, who could run like the wind because he had eight legs. The origin of Sleipnir is a strange tale. Loki, the god of mischief, turned himself into a mare and mated with a legendary work horse named Svadilfari. The ruse was to keep Svadilfari from work, but the result was an eight-legged colt, which was given to Odin. It’s not clear whether Odin was aware of the horse’s origin. 

5. The Racehorse: Eight Belles

We know many legendary racehorses: Man O’War, Secretariat, Seabiscuit, and others. You might remember Barbaro, the horse that won the Kentucky Derby in 2006, and then shattered three bones in one leg at the Preakness Stakes. Despite surgery and therapy, Barbaro was euthanized the following year. As sad as his story was, it was eclipsed by that of Eight Belles two years later.

Eight Belles was a filly that astonished fans by winning race after race early in 2008. As the only filly in the field, she came in second at the Kentucky Derby, behind winner Big Brown. Then she collapsed on the track with two broken front ankles. An ambulance was summoned, but the decision was made to put her down. Eight Belles was euthanized by injection right on the track, in front of the huge Derby crowd.

The magnitude of what happened was slow to reach the fans at Churchill Downs. Not only was a horse down, but it was the filly. And horse racing -- with the memory of Barbaro still fresh and the death of a horse coming only a day earlier on Kentucky Oaks Day -- had to confront grief one more time.

"There was no way to save her. She couldn't stand," trainer Larry Jones said. "She ran an incredible race. She ran the race of her life."

6. The Twitter Horse: Horse_Ebooks

Horse_Ebooks is a famous Twitter account that was supposedly run by a spambot. It would send nonsensical Tweets that appeared to be random text strings from various sources, rarely encompassing an entire sentence or coherent thought. But the Tweets were more varied and funnier than the average spambot, and did not contain the expected advertising links. The account eventually gathered over 200,000 followers, as users couldn’t wait to see what the spambot came up with next.

Then in September of 2013, the Horse_Ebooks account was exposed as a hoax. Or actually, a piece of performance art by Jacob Bakkila and Thomas Bender. Bakkila took over an existing spambot account two years earlier and attempted to get inside the mind of a spambot as he imitated, and eventually improved upon, its performance. The two were also responsible for the popular and enigmatic YouTube account Pronunciation Book

7. The Cartoon Horse: Quick Draw McGraw

Quick Draw McGraw was a Hanna-Barbera creation that spoofed Western movies. Quick Draw was an anthropomorphic horse who worked as the brave but dim-witted sheriff of an Old West town. His sidekick, a burro named Baba Looey, was much smarter, but Quick Draw never let him forget who was the authority figure. His catchphrase was “Hold on thar, Baba Looey! I'll do the thin'in' around here, and don't you for-git it!" Quick Draw occasionally appeared as his alter ego, the masked hero El Kabong, who used his guitar as a weapon to beat up on outlaws. Although Quick Draw was a horse himself, he was often shown riding a realistic horse or driving a team of horses. Go figure.

8. The Community of Horses: My Little Pony

My Little Pony is a TV series and a line of toys by Hasbro. The franchise began as the toys called My Pretty Pony developed by Bonnie Zacherle and Charles Muenchinger in 1981. They were renamed My Little Pony in 1983. TV specials were produced to promote the toys in the mid-‘80s. The Ponies have been on TV, home video, and movies ever since, and have in the past few years developed a huge internet presence. The fourth generation TV series, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, debuted in 2010. A community of adult fans called Bronies have formed around the show. They keep in touch through online forums, community projects, and meet ups.

9. The Movie Horse: Khartoum

Khartoum was a fictional horse in the movie The Godfather, and was featured in its most horrific and memorable scene. Khartoum was a Triple Crown winner bought for $600,000. In the film, movie producer Jack Woltz was very attached to his horse, which he planned to use for stud. He learned the hard way that you don’t mess around with the Corleones when he woke up one morning with Khartoum’s severed head in his bed. Although the horse that played Khartoum was well-treated on the film set, the horse head found in the bed was real, having been procured from a dog food manufacturer.

10. The Survivor Horse: Comanche

The story of Comanche is often told as the horse that was the sole survivor of the massacre at Little Big Horn, but that’s not quite true. The huge bay horse indeed survived, but to be exact, he was the only survivor on the U.S. Cavalry side of the fight that was found at the scene. There were plenty of survivors on the side of the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes, as well as military horses captured by the warriors (Comanche was left behind because he was injured). Still, Comanche became a symbol of the carnage of Little Big Horn. He was nursed back to health and paraded as symbol of U.S. military might. Comanche was never ridden again, but was retired to a peaceful life at Fort Riley in Kansas. When he died in 1890, a taxidermist from the University of Kansas Natural History Museum preserved his hide. The mounted remains of Comanche can be seen to this day at the museum. 

For more horses, I recommend you look through these links.
The 30 Best Horse Movies
The American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame
The Most Famous Racehorses in History
13 Fictional Horses You Wouldn’t Want To Eat
Wikipedia’s List of Historical Horses
The Singing Horses

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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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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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