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4 Girls and a Ghost // Public Domain

Tom Skelton: The Serial Killer Court Jester

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4 Girls and a Ghost // Public Domain

Allegedly built on the site of an old Roman encampment, Muncaster Castle near the village of Ravenglass, Cumbria, on the far northwest coast of England, has been the ancestral seat of the local Pennington family for around 800 years. Like many of England’s castles and stately homes, Muncaster is supposedly haunted by more than its fair share of ghosts—among them, that of an infamous and murderous court jester named Thomas Skelton.

Although accounts of Skelton’s life are sketchy at best (because he was technically a servant, no detailed record of him was ever kept in the castle’s documents), it’s believed that he was hired by Sir Alan Pennington, possibly as a personal steward and teacher to the real Lord of Muncaster Castle, William Pennington, who was 14 when his father died in the mid-16th century. Precisely how the Penningtons came to know Skelton is unclear, but nevertheless he soon made a name for himself not only as a brilliant entertainer but—if local legend is to be believed—as a lethally dangerous practical joker.

According to one story, Skelton had a habit of sitting beneath a chestnut tree (which still stands today) on the castle grounds, where he would chat with and offer directions to travelers and passers-by on the road that ran by the castle. Anyone he took a dislike to, however, would not be helped on their way but instead be intentionally directed toward a perilous and all but undetectable patch of quicksand by the nearby cliffs, from which there was little chance of escape. How many people Skelton supposedly sent to their deaths this way is unknown—but whether true or not, even this grim story isn’t the worst thing attributed to him.

In 1825, a local journalist and editor named John Briggs published a series of essays and letters in which he recounted one particular story dating from Skelton’s time at Muncaster: Sir Alan’s young daughter Helwise dressed as a shepherdess and went to the village where she met and danced with a young carpenter named Richard, who eventually became her secret lover. But Wild Will of Whitbeck, who Helwise had shunned at the dance, was jealous and followed them until he learned her true identity.

He told the story to a knight, Sir Ferdinand, who had wanted to marry Helwise. He went into a fit of rage and contacted Skelton, who blamed Richard for stealing some money—and with Ferdinand’s backing went out to right several perceived wrongs.

Some versions of the story say that while entertaining Richard with jokes and magic tricks—and apparently agreeing to help him elope with Helwise—Skelton plied the young man with cider and, once he was suitably drunk, helped him back to his workshop. There, Skelton bludgeoned him to death with his own tools and, according to Briggs’s account, cut off his head with an axe and hid it beneath a pile of wood shavings. Skelton then returned to the castle and coolly told his fellow servants what he had done, joking that the carpenter “will not find [his head] so easily when he awakes as he did my shillings [that were stolen].” Quite what the other servants thought of this is, unfortunately, unrecorded. But Briggs does tell us Ferdinand's attempts to woo Helwise failed, and she went to go live in a nunnery while he went on to die in battle.

Briggs’s account of the carpenter’s murder is one of only a handful of details from Skelton’s life that we have on record, but given the lack of real evidence dating from Skelton’s own lifetime it’s impossible to say whether it’s a genuine account or not. Nevertheless, Skelton’s reputation continues to live on at Muncaster Castle: An eerie portrait of him in his full jester’s costume—and holding a copy of his own last will and testament, in which he apparently predicts his own death while reportedly all but admitting to directing people to their doom—is supposed to be the center of all kinds of ghostly phenomena at the castle. Perhaps because of his monstrous reputation, he became the last court jester of Muncaster for hundreds of years—that is, until the present-day Penningtons began hosting a competition each year to find a new annual fool. Hopefully, these new jesters only care about fun and games.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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