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Kreecher via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

More People Were Literate in Ancient Judah Than We Knew

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Kreecher via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When was the Hebrew Bible written? That question has long been the subject of heated debate, largely because of the fragmentary nature of the historical record. Piecing together the ancient history of the Hebrew-speaking peoples revolves around a limited number of inscriptions and physical artifacts, along with written accounts from neighboring civilizations. Of course, there are also the Biblical texts themselves, but the oldest of these, found among the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, date back only to the 3rd century BCE.

Now, a cross-disciplinary team of nine Israeli scientists from Tel Aviv University has taken a fresh look at a collection of inscriptions from circa 600 BCE, and—with the help of a machine-learning computer algorithm—has concluded that literacy was already on the rise in the ancient Kingdom of Judah (a.k.a. Judea) in the years prior to the Babylonian conquest in 587 BCE. And that, they argue, points to an “educational infrastructure” that would have made the writing of the Biblical texts possible. Their study was published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

The computer program studied the inscriptions from 16 pottery fragments recovered at Arad, a remote desert fortress about 20 miles south of Jerusalem, the capital of the kingdom. The analysis of the handwriting showed that at least six different writers penned the inscriptions, which contain instructions for the movements of troops and the distribution of supplies, including wine, oil, and flour. They’re addressed to someone named “Eliashib,” believed to have been the quartermaster of the fortress, and to his assistant.

Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin et al. in PNAS

“Until now, there was no conclusive empirical evidence about levels of literacy [in Judah],” Arie Shaus, a Ph.D. student in applied mathematics at Tel Aviv University and one of the lead authors of the study, tells mental_floss. Now there’s “very good evidence that hundreds of people, maybe more, could read and write.”

What's unclear, though, is whether reading and writing was restricted to a small group of elites—say, a handful of priests and scribes, perhaps in Jerusalem—or was more widespread. Shaus suggests it was quite common in the military. “We can now say that writing is everywhere, from the upper echelons of the Judahite army, down to the level of vice-quartermaster of some remote, isolated fort,” he says.

A chart depicting the hierarchy of the correspondents in the Arad inscriptions. Image credit: Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin et al. in PNAS

While many previous studies have attempted to date the various Biblical texts directly, this study turns the problem on its head, Shaus explains: “Instead of asking when were the texts written, you ask when would it have been possible for such texts to have been written.”

Christopher Rollston, an expert on ancient Semitic languages and literature at George Washington University, describes the technique used in the study as “very promising.”

“Determining the number of writers is really useful,” he tells mental_floss. Rollston, who was not involved in the current study, notes that scholars have long attempted such estimates, using various “analogue” methods, but this study provides an “empirical foundation.”

Rollston cautions, however, against assuming that the general population of Judah could read and write. “Literacy in ancient Israel and Judah was probably 15 or 20 percent of the population, at most,” he says.

According to the Bible, a unified Hebrew-speaking kingdom flourished under King David and his son, Solomon; historians estimate that their reigns spanned roughly 1000 to 920 BCE, when the kingdom was divided into Israel, in the north, and Judah, in the south. The northern kingdom eventually fell to the Assyrians, the southern kingdom to the Babylonians. Although Hebrew inscriptions dating back to the 10th century BCE have been found, the dates associated with the Biblical texts have always been the subject of debate. The Book of Deuteronomy, for example, is a complex work unlikely to have been composed until literacy was fairly widespread, historians believe.

This research “emphasizes the political and military infrastructure that allows for the spread of writing literacy across different social classes,” William Schniedewind, an expert on Biblical studies and Semitic languages at UCLA, tells mental_floss. “That’s the important thing here—it’s not just that you have writing; it’s that you have it across a variety of social classes, so that it can be socially significant.” Schniedewind says that the Tel Aviv study supports the thesis of his book How the Bible Became a Book, published in 2004.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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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]