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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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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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
Sponsor Content: BarkBox
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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

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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