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11 Miniature Mischief-Makers From World Folklore

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Humans have always looked for an excuse when something goes wrong, and traditionally, mythical creatures have often provided the perfect scapegoat. The milk has curdled? Must be a brownie. Tools gone missing? Blame the knockers. Someone drank all your wine? Cellar must be infested with clurichauns.

Folklore around the world provides us with a host of these small fairy-like creatures, frequently treading a fine line between the malevolent and benevolent, and worryingly quick to take offense. So next time you break a vase or lose your keys, here are a sampling of miniature mischief-makers to take the blame.


Brownies are small, usually helpful spirits originating in Scotland and northern England. They are generally male and reside in the house carrying out useful household tasks such as churning butter or polishing floors. Brownies are either clad in rags or naked, and some folktales say that if you offer clothes to a brownie they will leave your home, either because they now have nice new clothes or because they are affronted by the gift.

Be warned, however: Brownies are quick to anger, and if you irritate a brownie you may live to regret it, as these once-helpful household friends can turn into boggarts. Boggarts are brownies gone bad—they break things, throw things, and are generally terrible house guests.


Cornwall, one location of the knockers. Image credit: iStock

Knockers are small, mostly benevolent creatures said to inhabit the tin mines of Cornwall; Welsh miners had a similar character known as the coblynau. Some think the myth developed from the strange knocking sounds miners heard while down the mine, the mysterious noises being attributed to the dwarf-like creatures thought to inhabit the subterranean world.

Many believed the knockers were helpful, alerting miners to rich seams of ore or warning them away from areas liable to collapse. But like most fairy folk, the knockers were also seen as keen pranksters and blamed every time a piece of equipment went missing or someone got lost down the mine. To appease the knockers, miners would leave food offerings on the floors of the mine and ensured they always spoke respectfully of the little creatures, so as to not provoke their ire.

During the California gold rush Cornish miners were in high demand due to their excellent mining skills, and as a result these legendary creatures spread to the United States, where they were often called TommyKnockers.


Trow are described as small, ugly, deformed creatures sometimes invisible to humans. At night the trow were thought to break into houses to warm themselves around the fire, while the terrified inhabitants cowered in their beds waiting for them to leave. In some folklore the trow were said to live in the ancient mounds called howes found across Orkney and Shetland; here they had lavish underground homes, where they hosted parties and sometimes kidnapped hapless humans who were forced to play endless jigs while the trow danced all night long. Trow also delight in causing mischief and so were generally blamed when the milk or ale went sour or something got lost; however, if a human managed to find an item belonging to a trow it was said to bestow its good luck on them.


A kobold by Willy Pogány via Wikipeda //  Public Domain

Kobolds are pointy-eared goblins found in German folklore. Rather like brownies, they are household sprites, making their homes in your home. Treat a kobold right and they will help out with chores, but annoy one (and let’s face it, most of these small folk are quite easily annoyed) and they will turn to mischief—toppling people over, hiding stuff, and generally causing trouble.

In German mythology there are three types of kobold: the household goblin, the kobold that inhabits mines (like the Cornish knocker), and a sea-faring kobold who lives aboard ships helping out with chores or causing mischief depending on his mood. Due to their unpredictable nature, the kobolds were often seen as undesirable house guests or bad omens—and is it any wonder when certain myths tell of angry kobolds chopping up the kitchen boy and adding him to the cooking pot?


Pixies (or piskys) are the classic miniature mischief-makers of English folklore. More commonly found in the West Country (Devon and Cornwall), pixies are said to be very small spirits, who wear natural colors such as greens and browns. Pixies love to play pranks and cause trouble and were traditionally blamed for all sorts of minor upsets, such as a blown-out candle, mysterious tapping, or an item getting lost. Pixies were said to be the scourge of travelers, as they have a habit of leading people astray, leaving them lost and disoriented. This gave rise to the word pixie-led, or pixilated, meaning bewildered or befuddled.


Leprechauns are probably the most famous mischievous fairy folk, instantly recognizable by their red hair and beards, smart emerald-green suits, and quick-witted Irish charm. The word leprechaun is likely derived from the old Irish word Lú Chorpain, meaning small body, and is also associated with the Irish word for shoe maker—leath bhrógan (the creatures are frequently depicted as cobblers).

Stories of leprechauns have existed for hundreds of years, and human obsession with the devious little creatures has probably been stoked by tales of their legendary pots of gold. Many of the myths surrounding the leprechauns revolve around stories of a human’s greedy and avaricious nature, which the leprechauns expose. A typical story involves a man capturing a leprechaun and demanding to know where his pot of gold is buried. The leprechaun then indicates the tree, and the man ties a red handkerchief on the tree so he might return with a shovel. However, when the man returns he discovers the wily leprechaun has tied red handkerchiefs to all the surrounding trees, thus protecting his gold from discovery.


Like their fairy cousins the leprechauns, clurichauns are small red-headed chaps in smartly turned-out suits, but these sprites are the wild child of folklore, and love to get roaring drunk. Clurichauns inhabit wine cellars, and as their ruddy complexion attests, spend most of their time sampling the contents of the hapless publican's or homeowner’s alcohol store. However, if you keep your clurichaun happy (by keeping your wine cellar well-stocked), he will protect your wine casks from leaks; annoy him, however, and soon all your wine will go bad and chaos will descend. Clurichauns love nothing better than a jolly good party and after a drink or three will often strike up a rousing rendition of an Irish folk song while riding around your house on the pet dog—what could be more charming?


Duendes are small elf-like creatures originally from Iberian folklore, a tradition that later migrated to South America. Notably, they have no thumbs. They have been known to be both good and bad, but all duendes are prone to mischief-making and will exact revenge if they feel they have been wronged. Across the Spanish-speaking world, many parents use tales of the duende stealing naughty children to encourage their offspring to behave. Like many goblins, duende like to skulk in dark corners of bedrooms or under beds, and be warned if you like to sleep with your feet outside the covers—they have been known to accidentally take off a toe or two when trying to trim the unkempt toenails of unsuspecting children.


Dokkaebi are Korean goblins that come in many guises. They are created when a discarded household item, such as a broom or a wooden spoon, gains a spirit and becomes animate. Dokkaebi are said to be ugly and troll-like in appearance and some have just one leg. Keen tricksters, they enjoy taunting humans, using their powers of persuasion to convince people to carry out pointless tasks like wrestling all night long. These Korean goblins can also shape-shift, and some tales tell of them transforming into a beautiful woman in order to seduce guileless men. Some dokkabei possess a magic club that allows them to summon any item they like, but whenever they magically summon something, it disappears from its original home.


Boroboro-Tonas depicted by Toriyama Sekien via Wikipedia // Public Domain

Like the Korean dokkaebi, Japanese tsukumogami are possessed household objects. Tradition has it that any tool over 100 years old may become animated with a soul and come to life. Every year on the Japanese New Year, people toss out their old tools. Unfortunately the discarded tools are pretty bitter about being thrown away after all their hard work, and so return to their homes to wreak havoc.

The tsukumogami come in numerous forms, with many tales telling of their exploits. One especially fearsome tsukumogami is Boroboro-Ton, a tattered old futon that comes to life and attempts to suffocate any human who dares sleep upon it by wrapping its raggedy form around them. In order to try and prevent old objects transforming into malicious tsukumogami, some people take them to the temple to be burned in the hope that they will move happily on to the afterlife.


Lutins originate in French folklore and have spread with French settlers to areas such as Quebec and Cajun territory. Lutins are hobgoblins whose main role in life is to cause strife for humans. They carry out all the usual fairy tricks, like making food go bad and stealing things, but their unique skill is hair-related mischief. Lutins love to create knots in the hair of horses or people and have been known to cut off the hair from unsuspecting sleeping humans. Some lutins have special magical objects such as a hat which bestows the power of invisibility, a very handy tool when playing pranks. But fear not, the naughty lutin can be frightened off with a thankfully plentiful resource—a liberal sprinkling of salt.

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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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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.