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9 Facts About Krampus, St. Nick's Demonic Companion

St. Nick brings the gifts, and Krampus brings the pain.

1. KRAMPUS IS A CHRISTMAS DEMON.

Who is Krampus? In Austria and across the German-speaking Alpine region, the demonic character is a crucial part of the holiday season. He’s a devilish figure, with long horns and a goaty beard, much like typical portrayals of Satan. You might see him posed harmlessly on a greeting card or reproduced in chocolates or figurines. But you might also encounter a procession of Krampuses stalking through the town, laden with bells and chains, intimidating onlookers or whipping them with bundles of sticks. 

2. DECEMBER 5 BELONGS TO KRAMPUS. IF YOU SURVIVE, YOU MIGHT GET PRESENTS.

December 5 is Krampusnacht, when Krampus reigns. In the real world, people might attend Krampus balls, or young men from the local Krampusgruppe might don carved wooden masks, cowbells, chains, and elaborate costumes to run through town in a Krampuslauf (Krampus run), frightening and sometimes beating bystanders. According to legend, Krampus will spend the night visiting each house. He might leave bundles of sticks for bad children—or he might just hit them with the sticks instead. He might toss them into a sack or basket on his back and then throw it in a stream, or he might straight-up take them to hell.

The next day, though, is Nikolastaug, St. Nicholas' Day—the same St. Nicholas whose Dutch name, Sinterklass, evolved into “Santa Claus.” In other words, it’s time for presents for all the little girls and boys … that is, all the ones who haven’t already been beaten, damned, or drowned.

3. KRAMPUS MAY BE A MONSTER, BUT HE PALS AROUND WITH SANTA.

Originally, Krampus was a purely pagan creation, said to be the son of Hel from Norse mythology. But he got grafted onto Christian tradition as a sidekick of St. Nicholas, similar to figures like Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands and Knecht Ruprecht in Germany. Since the 17th century, the two have been linked in a sort of Christmasy yin-yang, with Krampus as St. Nick’s dark companion. Costumed figures of the two traditionally visit houses and businesses together on Krampusnacht: St. Nick brings the gifts, and Krampus brings the pain.

4. KRAMPUS REVELERS WILL HIT, PUSH, AND WHIP SPECTATORS AT THEIR PARADES.

The Krampus of legend whips people with his birch bundle, but he’s a literal demon. Surely the costumed human Krampus partiers wouldn’t engage in such violence, right? Wrong. Here’s a description of the Salzburg Krampuslauf from a tourist who expected mere costumed buffoonery and came home with welts:

The narrow streets in the Old City section of Salzburg were packed with pedestrians as the Krampusse stomped through. Many people were caught unaware and reacted with terror. Some would flee and try to seek refuge in a shop or restaurant, only to be pursued by a determined Krampus. With so many easy targets, we again managed to escape largely unharmed. At times we were chased, jostled and struck, but compared with the brutality we witnessed, it was obvious we had been spared the full brunt of what Krampus could muster.

This writer went to Krampuslaufs in three cities and described “savage beatings” to people’s thighs and shins, as well as a Krampus chasing down and sitting on a teenager. But despite the fear and bruises, it’s all in good fun, and hey—at least they aim for the legs.

5. THE APPEARANCE OF KRAMPUS VARIES, BUT HE OFTEN HAS ONE HUMAN FOOT AND ONE CLOVEN HOOF.

Early 1900s Krampus greeting card via Wikimedia // Public Domain

The Krampus costumes at Krampuslaufs are aesthetically varied—they may be reminiscent of devils, bats, goats, Abominable Snowmen, or something out of a Guillermo del Toro movie. There are usually some kind of horns and hides involved, but there’s also a lot of free rein.

Krampus has also been a fixture on Austrian holiday greeting cards since the 1800s, where he’s shown pursuing women or menacing children. On the cards, Krampus traditionally has a long tongue that sometimes lolls halfway down his chest, and sports one human foot and one cloven hoof—no one is entirely sure why.

6. SOME AUSTRIAN HOUSEHOLDS HAD YEAR-ROUND DÉCOR MEANT TO REMIND KIDS TO STAY GOOD OR KRAMPUS WOULD GET THEM.

A 1958 article about the Krampus legend in Styria (a state in southeast Austria) reports that Krampus would deliver gold-painted bundles of birch sticks to children, small versions of the bundle of twigs he would use to beat people. The families would hang the birch twigs on the wall for the rest of the year as decoration—and to remind kids to stay in line. The article rather primly notes that the twigs are hung “particularly in those houses where the behaviour of the children merits the application of corporal correction.”

7. KRAMPUS WAS ONCE BANNED BY FASCISTS.

Between 1934 and 1938, when Austria was under Fascist rule, Krampus was seen as a symbol of (variously) sin, anti-Christian ideals, and Social Democrats. The newspaper of the Austrian Catholic Union called for a Krampus boycott, and the government of Lienz, the capital of East Tyrol, forbade Krampus dances, and further mandated that all aspiring St. Nicholases must be licensed by the city. They also pledged to arrest Krampus whenever they saw him. Though it didn’t rise to the level of a ban, in 1953 the head of Vienna’s kindergarten system also published a pamphlet calling Krampus “an evil man” and warning parents that celebrating him could scar their children for life.

8. KRAMPUS MASKS ARE VALUABLE PIECES OF FOLK ART.

Sure, you could probably pick up some plastic horns at Tyrolian Target, but that’s not really in the right spirit. Traditionally, the masks worn in a Krampus procession are made of wood, hand-carved by specialist artisans. For instance, Ludwig Schnegg makes the masks for all 80 members of the Haiming Krampusgruppe—and he’s been making them since 1981. Antique masks often wind up in museums; either folklore museums, or ones explicitly devoted to the Krampus. The towns of Kitzbühel and Stallhofen both feature Krampus museums that collect old costumes and masks, and until recently, there was a museum in Suetschach as well.

9. YOU CAN CELEBRATE KRAMPUS EVEN IF YOU'RE IN THE U.S.

Krampus has become increasingly popular on this side of the pond—he's shown up on Venture Brothers, Grimm, Supernatural, The Colbert Report, and American Dad, and there's a Krampus-inspired horror movie. And in an increasing number of American cities, you can go to a Krampus party, Krampus costume contest, or even a traditional Krampuslauf. Los Angeles in particular has a burgeoning Krampus scene, and the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn hosts a yearly costume party. You can also get down with Krampus in Chicago, D.C., Philadelphia, Richmond, Orlando, and other cities in the U.S. and Canada.

Of course, for some people the holidays are scary enough without throwing a demon beast with a penchant for physical assault into the mix. But if you’re the kind of person who goes to extra-scary haunted houses at Halloween, take heart: That terror doesn’t have to stop just because we’ve entered a season of togetherness and joy.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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