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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Polymath, Mystic, and Saint Hildegard von Bingen

Original image
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Saint Hildegard of Bingen was a smasher of stained-glass ceilings. From traumatic beginnings, she fought and flourished, becoming one of the most accomplished and enduring authors, artists, healers, composers, and visionaries of the Middle Ages.

THE TITHE

Hildegard was born in 1098 to noble parents in West Franconia, now part of Germany. At the age of three, she is said to have experienced her first vision of dazzling, divine light. A strange and sickly child, within a few years her parents had passed her off to the church. After all, devout Christians were obligated to tithe, or give the church one-tenth of all they owned—and Hildegard, by many accounts, was their tenth child.

By the time Hildegard was eight, her parents had delivered her to the monastery at Disibodenberg. There, she was assigned to serve a young noblewoman named Jutta von Sponheim. Jutta was not content simply to pray; she wanted to be literally buried in religion. She dressed herself in rags, moved into a tiny cell, and brought Hildegard with her. Then she told the monks to wall them in. Jutta had sealed herself, and her charge, within a living tomb, becoming what was known as an anchoress. For the next three decades, the two would receive all of their food, water, and contact with the outside world through a small window.

THE SCRIBE

As Jutta’s behavior became more and more fanatical, Hildegard prayed harder and studied more. She learned to read and write, and a sympathetic monk brought her books on botany and medicine and pushed them through the cell’s small window. Hildegard devoured them. Jutta continued to deteriorate and undertook long fasts that left her weakened. More noble families delivered their daughters to the cell inside the wall; like Hildegard’s parents, they considered it a duty to donate their daughters—along with substantial sums of money—to the church. Left with no alternative, Hildegard took them under her wing.

After Jutta’s death in 1136, Hildegard was named magistra (spiritual teacher) of the growing flock. She continued to read and develop her love of music and words. Then she began to make her own. A voice in a vision instructed her to “tell and write”—and so Hildegard did. She began composing sacred music.

She recorded her visions and the prophecies of her angelic visitors. She described and drew the plants she saw in the monastery courtyard and their medicinal properties. She illustrated religious texts with luminous images from her dreams. And she began to object to the corrupt monks who would imprison children for the sake of the dowries that came with them.

The universe. Image credit: The Yorck Project via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

 
As Hildegard’s voice on the page grew stronger, so did the threat she presented to the monks who held her and her charges captive. Word of her healing and prophetic abilities had spread, bringing visitors, ailing supplicants, and devotees. But women weren’t supposed to write or publish books. They weren’t supposed to talk to God, or heal the sick, or write hymns. And they definitely weren’t supposed to criticize the church. On their own, each of these crimes looked bad. Viewed all at once, they looked a lot like heresy.

THE FIREBRAND

Hildegard was not oblivious to the risks of her nonconformity. She knew the best way to protect herself would be to obtain the blessing of higher church authorities, and so in 1147 she wrote to the supportive abbot Bernard of Clairvaux for aid. Clairvaux in turn interceded on her behalf with Pope Eugenius III, who endorsed and encouraged her. Hildegard responded with her thanks—and an exhortation for him to try harder to reform his church.

By this time, Hildegard had become unpopular in the Disibodenberg monastery. And the place became more hostile than ever after her conversation with the Pope. So when a holy voice told her to take her charges and escape to a ruined monastery near Bingen, she did not argue. Monastery leaders attempted to stop her, but Hildegard fell suddenly and violently ill—a sign, some said, that God was angry the monks had interfered. Hildegard recovered and told her flock to prepare for their journey.

THE ABBESS

The magistra and her new religious order reached their new home at Bingen around 1150. A new vision inspired Hildegard to dress her brides of heaven not in Jutta’s self-congratulatory rags, but in fine cloth and tiaras.

Over the next two decades, she would tour the country to preach. She would publish treatises on the natural world, including plants, animals, and stones. She would write a handbook of diseases and their cures. She would invent languages and words and imaginary lands. All this her detractors begrudgingly allowed.

But the final straw came in 1178 when Hildegard and her nuns respectfully and knowingly buried a man who had been excommunicated from the church before his death. The convent was stripped of its rights. There could be no Mass, no sacraments, and no music.

Hildegard fought and argued and pled. Finally, in March of 1179, the interdict was lifted.

THE LEGEND

Her legacy secure, Hildegard could, at last, rest. She died in September 1179 at the age of 81, leaving behind a wealth of sacred music, writings, and teachings that are still widely read and enjoyed today. Her work has enjoyed particular popularity since the late 20th century, when her mysticism and the feminist elements of her life and work gained new attention in part from a burgeoning New Age movement.

She was canonized in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI, who called her "perennially relevant" and "an authentic teacher of theology and a profound scholar.”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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
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fun
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.

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