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10 Bridge Traditions From Around the World

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Last June, city workers in Paris started cutting apart the layers of colorful padlocks that had been spreading across the panels of the Pont des Arts bridge like an invasive vine. The “love locks” began appearing on the bridge around 2008, and city officials complained that they’d damaged the historic structure and obscured views of the Seine. The couples who proclaimed their love this way—usually by etching their initials on the locks and throwing the keys into the river—might have said the authorities were being unromantic.

They certainly have the numbers on their side: love locks are found on bridges throughout the world, including on New York's Brooklyn Bridge, Moscow’s Luzhkov Bridge and the bridge on Lotus Peak in Huangshan, China. The origins of the custom aren’t clear, but may have to do with a World War I Serbian tale in which a teacher is abandoned by the object of her affection, and young girls in her town who hope to avoid the same fate begin “locking up” their love on a local bridge.

Bridges have often been subject to superstitions, perhaps because they are a literal passage between two places, and often symbolize movement from one stage of life to the next. In many parts of the world it’s considered unlucky to be the first person to cross a bridge; the idea is that the devil, envious of the human ability to create a construction so complicated, will take the soul of the first living creature to make its way across. Workers sometimes leave money in the plaster of a new bridge to protect it and ensure good luck, perhaps a remnant of a rumored earlier custom involving human sacrifice. Some people touch the roof of their car, or spit, when driving under a bridge while a train or other vehicle is passing, supposedly to make sure it doesn't collapse, although this seems both ineffective and unhygienic. 

Some other interesting bridge-related customs around the world include the following. 

1. Wish Locks, Fengyuan, Taiwan

In a variant of the love lock practice, residents in the Fengyuan District of Taiwan have taken to attaching "wish locks" to the wire mesh fence of a pedestrian overpass at the city's train station. Some who do so reportedly believe that trains passing below create a magnetic field that accumulates in the locks and fulfills the wishes written on the outside of the padlocks. Examples include “[I wish to] successfully pass university entrance exams,” “I want happiness” and “[give me] eternal love.” Some of the locks are hung in pairs and are known as "heart locks." Authorities have removed the locks on several occasions, but they keep springing back up, and the location has developed into a tourist destination. However, in 2012 it was announced that that the bridge was going to be torn down for an elevated railway. After local outcry, the bureau in charge of the bridge announced that it would relocate the structure and turn it into a public arts project.

2. Touching Saint John of Nepomuk, Charles Bridge, Prague

LenDog64, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

On Prague's beautiful Charles Bridge stands a statue of Saint John of Nepomuk, vicar-general of the archdiocese of Prague and now patron saint of Bohemia. According to tradition, the priest perished when Wenceslaus IV had him drowned in the Vltava river after he refused to divulge the queen's confession. The statue was erected in 1683, on what was believed to be the 300th anniversary of the saint’s death in 1383, but, because of a copying error in the 15th century, was actually the 290th anniversary. It was supposedly placed at the precise point where poor John was thrown into the river. Touching it is said to bring good luck and a swift return to Prague. Others say the saint was thrown into the river a little further toward the Old Town, where a cross with five stars stands on a parapet. Touching the cross and stars with your left hand while making a wish is supposed to make the wish come true.

3. Greeting the Fairies, Isle of Man

The Isle of Man, located in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland, is home to a number of supposed fairy bridges, but the one most popular with tourists is on the A5 road between Douglas and Castletown. Local custom dictates that those crossing the bridge are supposed to say "hello, fairies" to bring good luck, and failure to do so supposedly brings misfortune. Some take the custom even further, leaving messages and gifts (such as teddy bears, flowers, fuzzy dice and underwear) by the side of the road. That might be a wise approach—the local fairies aren't of the delicate, sweet variety, but are said to be two feet tall and grumpy.

4. Good Luck Animals on The Bridges of St. Petersburg

sergejf, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

At least two of St. Petersburg’s 200 bridges have their own special customs. On Ioannovsky Bridge, the city’s first, tossing a coin at the feet of a metal sculpture of a little hare that stands on a wooden pillar in the water is supposed to be good luck. (The statue commemorates a local legend about a hare who saved itself from a flood by jumping into Peter the Great’s boot.) On the Bankovsky Bridge, there’s a second opportunity to cultivate good fortune: putting your hand on the feet of one of the bridge’s lions while making a wish is supposed to ensure that your wish comes true as you cross the bridge. 

5. Kissing at the Crim Dell Bridge, William and Mary College

benuski, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Plenty of college campuses have romantic spots, but few are as picturesque, or as storied, as the red-and-white Crim Dell footbridge at William and Mary. Campus lore says that two people crossing the bridge while holding hands will be friends for life, while a couple who kisses after crossing the bridge will be together forever. A variant of the legend says that if the couple breaks up, the woman has to push the man over the bridge, or she’ll face life alone. And anyone who’s decided to give up on love and be forever alone need only cross the bridge by themselves, which supposedly ensures life-long solitude.

6. James River footbridge on the Appalachian trail

Rebecca Sudduth, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The James River Footbridge is the longest footbridge on the Appalachian Trail, and the sweaty, exhausted hikers who make that trek reportedly have a tradition about jumping off it. (It might be the closest thing some of them get to a shower for a while.) Unfortunately, it might not be one of the trail’s safer customs—at least one local has died jumping off the bridge, and climbing it is now prohibited.

7. Stari Most in Mostar 

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The stunning Stari Most (Old Bridge) is a landmark in Mostar, as well as all of Herzegovina. First built under the Ottomans in the 16th century, it was destroyed during the wars of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s, but reconstructed with UNESCO help in 2004. For local men, jumping off the bridge and into the frigid water of the Neretva is an old tradition: the first recorded jump from the bridge was in 1664. It's a dangerous leap, and fatalities have resulted, but tourists who want to give it a go can sign up to try it under the guidance of the Mostar Diving Club.

8. Driving Sheep Over London Bridge

diamond geezer, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In London, freemen have the traditional right to drive sheep and cattle over London Bridge. The right was originally granted to allow them to bring livestock into the city for sale. Over the past several years, Lord Mayors of London have exercised the right by driving flocks of sheep over the bridge as a stunt to raise money for charity, angering some animal rights campaigners. Animals have also been driven over the bridge to mark the start of London Architecture Week, bring attention to the rights of older citizens, and promote fundraising for the restoration of Canterbury Cathedral, among other causes.

9. Kissing Bridges, USA

In some parts of rural America, including Virginia and Indiana, covered bridges are called “kissing bridges” or “courting bridges” because the privacy offered by the roof makes them a perfect place to kiss your sweetheart. Smooching your beloved while passing through is also said to bring good luck. For kids, the “kissing bridges” are sometimes known as “wishing bridges,” and anyone with enough self-control (and lung power) to hold their breath the entire length of the bridge is said to have a wish granted.

10. Measuring in Smoots, Harvard Bridge 

Oliver Smoot enjoys the unusual honor of having his own body used as a unit of measurement. In October 1958, members of MIT's Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity devised a pledge prank in which they used Smoot to measure the length of the Harvard Bridge. (Smoot was supposedly chosen because he was the shortest pledge, and his last name sounded kind of scientific.) The obliging Smoot lay down and got back up repeatedly across the bridge while his pledge brothers painted marks every ten "Smoots" (one Smoot is about 5 foot 7 inches). According to their final calculations, which were painted onto the pavement, the bridge was 364.4 Smoots, "plus or minus an ear." The ear was intended to provide a margin of error, since the fraternity brothers knew their methods weren't precise. The Smoot marks have survived, and are re-painted by incoming members of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity each year. They've been preserved through renovations on the bridge, and were celebrated during a Smoot Day bash on October 4, 2008, the 50th anniversary of the original measurement. Incidentally, Oliver Smoot went on to have a career in measurement, eventually becoming chair of the American National Standards Institute and serving as president of the International Organization for Standardization.

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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.