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What Happened When Elizabeth I Organized A National Lottery

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Raffles and lotteries are by no means new. Legend has it that funds raised by a traditional lottery, known as keno, were used to partly finance construction of the Great Wall of China. The widow of the great painter Jan van Eyck dispensed with many of his remaining artworks in a fundraising raffle after her husband’s death. The sale of more than £600,000 worth of lottery tickets partly funded the construction of the original Westminster Bridge in the mid-18th century. And almost 450 years ago, even Queen Elizabeth I got in on the act by organizing the very first national lottery in English history—and perhaps the first state-sanctioned lottery in the English-speaking world.

The early years of Elizabeth’s reign were overshadowed by her need to not only pay off the colossal debt her father had lumbered the nation with on his deathbed, but to build on Britain’s foreign trade and colonial enterprises. But both international trade and overseas exploration—not to mention the construction of the new ships, docks and harbors that they require—are far from cheap. Keen not to increase taxes or enter into potentially ruinous money-lending deals with other countries, Elizabeth and her court looked elsewhere to find a fundraising idea to finance the nation’s overseas endeavors. And in 1567, she struck upon the perfect idea.

In a letter that came up for auction in 2010, on August 31, 1567 Elizabeth wrote to Sir John Spencer (a High Sheriff of Northamptonshire, and a distant ancestor of both Sir Winston Churchill and Diana, Princess of Wales) explaining that he was to help organize England’s very first national lottery. Similar letters were likely sent out to high-ranking officials in all the English regions, but Spencer’s is the only one to have survived, and it is ultimately thanks to him that we know just how Elizabeth planned the lottery to run.

Four hundred thousand tickets, or “lots,” were to be put up for sale nationwide, at a cost of 10 shillings each. The tickets themselves were not merely numbered tokens, but specially printed slips on which anyone wishing to enter the draw would be asked to write their name and a short written “device” (typically a brief biographical note or a favorite Bible verse) that was unique to them and so could be used to identify them if they won. Essentially, it was a Tudor English equivalent of a password reset security question. “God send a good lot for my children and me,” wrote one entrant on his ticket, “which have had 20 by one wife truly.”

The lottery itself was to be played “without any blanckes”, meaning that all ticket holders whose tickets were picked from the hat were guaranteed a prize. Unlike today, prize draws at the time tended to employ two separate draws, one from a tub or “lot-pot” containing the players’ tickets, and the other from a tub containing the names of all the prizes. This second tub also typically contained a large number of blank tickets alongside all the prize tokens, meaning that a winning player could have their number come up, only to go on to be awarded nothing at all; it’s the reason we talk of “drawing a blank” when we’re utterly nonplussed or defeated today. But in this unique national lottery, Elizabeth decreed that somewhat unfair system was to be ignored.

Out of every pound raised, Elizabeth explained, sixpence was to be set aside to pay a salary to the ticket-sellers and revenue collectors, described in the letter as “somme persons appointed of good trust,” who were to be specially chosen for the task. For his trouble, out of every £500 raised and sent to London, Spencer was to be paid 50 shillings (the equivalent of almost £600/$750 today). Corruption and any attempts to cheat the system were to be severely punished, Elizabeth warned, as the entire enterprise was for the good of the country—or, as she explained, “anything advantagious is ordered to be employed to good and publique acts and beneficially for our realme and our subjects.”

The 10 shilling ticket price (equivalent in value to almost £120 today) sadly put entry into the lottery far outside the reach of most ordinary citizens of the time—but the prizes and incentives on offer were tempting for many. First prize was a staggering £5,000 (equivalent to more than £1.1 million today), which was to be paid partly in £3,000 cash (“ready money”) and partly in an extravagant prize package containing fine tapestries and wall hangings, gold and silver plate, and a quantity of “good linen cloth.” Second prize was £2000 cash and a further £1500 worth of luxury items; third prize £1500 cash and the same amount of luxury goods, with similar prizes of diminishing value awarded for any player drawn in fourth to 11th place. And as if that weren’t enough, anyone wealthy enough to purchase a ticket was even granted a temporary immunity from arrest for all crimes except felonies, piracy, and treason.

Unsurprisingly, the logistics involved in running a fair, corruption-free, high-stakes national lottery in Elizabethan England—not least one that awarded anyone holding a ticket near total criminal immunity—proved challenging. Not only that, but the hefty entry cost meant only a fraction of the 400,000 tickets on sale (possibly as little as 10 percent) were actually purchased. As a result, the draw itself did not take place until almost two years later: On January 11, 1569, an eager crowd standing in a square outside the old St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London watched as a blindfolded child steadily picked tickets and prizes from two large urns. And although they didn’t sell as many as hoped, according to one 19th century history, “the drawing [continued] without intermission till the 6th of May, day and night.”

So who won Elizabeth’s national lottery? Sadly, the names of all the winners, including that of the grand prize winner, are unknown. But it’s fair to say a £5000 prize more than four centuries ago would have been a life-changing amount of cash—especially for someone with 20 children.

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