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20 Facts About the Russian Tsars

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Wikimedia Commons

In 1613, Russia was mired in turmoil. Having witnessed a succession of wannabe Tsars attempting to take the throne, the country was plagued by rampant famine, disease, and chaos. The people were in want of a ruling hand to bring back order. They chose for the task a timid sixteen-year-old boy named Michael Romanov, thus beginning the three-hundred-year rule of the Romanov dynasty, which wielded (mostly) absolute power over Russia until the March Revolution of 1917.

With great power comes great ridiculousness, of course, and each emperor or empress exhibited his or her own brand. Below is a select list of Romanov tomfoolery, as chronicled by Michael Farquhar’s Secret Lives of the Tsars.

1. Russia’s second Romanov Tsar, Alexis, was known as gentle and mild tempered. But when a peasant was charged with leading a failed revolt in 1670, the peasant was whipped, branded with hot irons, tortured, and cut into quarters while still alive. Reputation changed.

2. Alexis's wife Natalya was especially bold. At a time when most women stayed hidden behind closed doors, she dared open the window of her carriage slightly.

3. While young brothers Ivan V and Peter I co-Tsared at the behest of a people’s revolt in 1682, older sister Sophia (who may have maneuvered the revolt) was behind them whispering instructions. Literally. She sat in a chair behind their thrones and whispered orders.

4. Peter the Great was a "hands-on" Tsar and was known to hack off his enemies’ heads himself. Most Tsars just hired executioners.

5. Peter the Great also had an affinity for education, and he took the opportunity of his mistress Mary Hamilton’s beheading in 1719 to show the crowd where her vertebrae, windpipe, and carotid arteries were.

6. Peter the Great loved dwarfs and kept many around at a time. He was even known to have a naked dwarf jump out of a giant pie for his amusement.

7. Even a Tsar can't escape the consequences of wild behavior: Peter the Great had gonorrhea.

8. Empress Anna was especially fond of firearms, and wild beasts were collected around Russia and brought to her estates so she could shoot them at will (along with any birds that might have been flying by).

9. Empress Anna had absurd inclinations, and she would force her noblemen to act as fools and sit in giant nests while covered in feathers. This was her idea of a fun time.

10. Gorgeous Empress Elizabeth at times ordered men to dress like women and women like men. She was fond of cross-dressing herself, but no one ever pulled it off as well as she did.

11. After a botched dye job, Empress Elizabeth had to shave her head. The empress would not have others walking around with full heads of hair, so all women in the court were made to cut theirs, too.

12. Catherine the Great, like many of her lusty predecessors, had a procession of young lovers into her sixties (when she died) — several of them were younger than half her age.

13. Catherine’s deepest and longest-lasting relationship was with one Gregory Potemkin, whom she showered with a string of pet names. These included “dear plaything,” “lion of the jungle,” and “golden cock.”

14. Tsar Paul had a dog named Spitz.

15. In pretending to buddy up to Napoleon, Alexander I showed interest in an actress participating in a performance the two attended. Bonaparte advised against it, explaining that within a week, all of France would know the Tsar’s measurements.

16. For Nicholas I, the Third Department (a secret police force that surveilled the citizenry) was not enough. He’d travel the country to snoop on his subjects himself. In one instance, he visited a high school and scolded the director for having ugly pupils.

17. Alexander II had the audacity to free Russia’s serfs, ultimately leading to seven assassination attempts made against him. There were only seven attempts because the last one, in 1881, proved successful.

18. Though not a monarch himself, self-proclaimed holy man Grigori Rasputin was held in high esteem by Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra. Many feared Rasputin's control over the throne, and he was subjected to many assassination attempts.  According to some accounts, when his assassination was finally successfully carried out in 1916, it wasn’t the poisoning or gunshot wounds or blunt force trauma that killed Rasputin, but the drowning that followed.

19. Despite being crowned emperor, Nicholas II was not ready to ascend the throne. Thus, when asked about crucial government matters, his response was, "Ask my mother."

20. Before the Romanovs came to power, Ivan the Terrible ruled Russia with a gory fist. Known for ordering that his enemies be skinned, boiled, burned, and broken, he was the favorite Tsar of Joseph Stalin.

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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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