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Eye of the Beholder

If kids used to ride you for looking "beat up from the feat up" or for "taking one too many hits from the ugly stick" or even for having a "face that only a mother could love on payday," then maybe it's time you gained back some of that self-confidence...by hopping in a time machine!That's right, nothing heals wounds like time, so skip back to an age where you'll truly be appreciated for whom you are, inside and out.

But mostly out.

A Whiter Shade of Pale
Problem: You can't get a tan, and your hair's falling out.
Solution: Take comfort in Elizabethan England.
Leave it to the British to place a premium on pale skin. In the 16th century, women of leisure caked on their makeup for that fresh-from-the-morgue look and even painted blue veins on their faces for a more "natural" appearance. But if you're worried that your pale skin along won't win you acceptance, start plucking away at your hairline. If an Elizabethan woman didn't have a high enough forehead, she plucked or shaved until she got one, or sometimes even resorted to old-school Nair: Bandages soaked in vinegar and cat feces.

That Gap in Your Smile
Problem: You need a jump rope to floss between your teeth.
Solution: Head for the 14th century.
If your teeth are so separated that it looks like Moses played a hand in parting them, forget the braces and head for the 1300s. While there are plenty of modern-day beauties sporting sexy gap-toothed smiles (Madonna, Sandra Day O'Connor and Ted Koppel all come to mind), the dental quirk isn't nearly as desirable as it once was. Just flip through The Canterbury Tales for proof. Chaucer blessed his amorous Wife of Bath character with wide, child-rearing hips and brazen, red stockings, but he needed a device that even further illustrated her sensual nature"¦so he gave her the sort of "wide" smile that (back then) could make a bishop blush.

Calculus bridge.jpg

Black Goes With Everything
Problem: Either you've chewed too much dip over the last few decades or your "Goth" phase got out of hand, because your teeth are now jet-black.
Solution: You're going to Japan!
You need to stop messing about with those fancy teeth-bleaching products and make a dash for Japan in the 1400s. Back then; it was common for Japanese women to make themselves more beautiful by dyeing their pearly whites black. The process, called ohaguro (which cleverly translates to "Black teeth"), involved soaking iron in tea or sake, then painting on the resulting black liquid. If, however, you want to put an extra coat on those teeth (remember, they can never be too black!), just make sure that the dye you're using is unleaded. Beauty always comes at a price, and in this case, the price was often lead poisoning.

More (loosely) ocular-related facts can be spotted in the eye-catching Scatterbrained from mental_floss, volume 2, issue 6.

More horrific pictures of Sam, former holder of the title "World's Ugliest Dog," can be found online. Sadly, Sam himself passed away in November of 2005.

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AI Is Decoding the Vatican Secret Archives, One Pen Stroke at a Time
Tiziana Fabi, AFP/Getty Image
Tiziana Fabi, AFP/Getty Image

The Vatican Secret Archives comprise 600 collections of texts spanning 12 centuries, most of which are nearly impossible to access. The Atlantic reports that a team of scientists is hoping to change that with help from some high school students and artificial intelligence software.

In Codice Ratio is a new research project dedicated to analyzing the vast majority of Vatican manuscripts that have never been digitized. When other libraries wish to make a digital archive of their inventory, they often use optical-character-recognition (OCR) software. Such programs can be trained to recognize the letters in a certain alphabet, pick them out of hard-copy manuscripts, and convert them to searchable text. This technology posed a challenge for the Vatican, however: The many older texts in its collections are written by hand in a cursive-like script. With no spaces between the characters, it's impossible for OCR to determine what's a letter and what isn't.

To get around this, the research team at In Codice Radio tweaked OCR software so that it could recognize pen strokes instead of letters. The OCR can identify the pen strokes that make up letters in an alphabet by looking for spots in the text where the ink narrows rather than presents full gaps between characters. The strokes aren't very useful on their own, but the software can combine the pieces to form possible letters.

To help the software perform even better, researchers recruited students from 24 Italian high schools to check its work. As the researchers explain in their paper, the students were shown a list of acceptable versions of a real letter, such as the letter A, and were then given a list of characters the software had guessed might be the real letter. By selecting the characters that matched the acceptable versions, they were able to slowly teach the software the medieval Latin alphabet.

All this information, plus a database of 1.5 million Latin words that had already been digitized, eventually brought the OCR to a place where it could use artificial intelligence to identify real letters on its own. The final results aren't perfect—a good portion of the words transcribed so far contain typos—but Vatican archivists are a lot better off than they were before: The software can identify individual handwritten letters with 96 percent accuracy, and misspelled words can still provide important context to readers. The goal is to eventually use the software to digitize every document in the Vatican Secret Archives.

[h/t The Atlantic]

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literature
Can You Decipher the Playful 1817 Letter Jane Austen Sent to Her Niece in Code?
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iStock

Jane Austen—homebrewer, musician, and, oh, one of the most famous novelists in the English language—didn’t limit her prose to the fictional world. She was a prolific correspondent, sending missives to friends and relatives (and occasionally soliciting feedback on her work). Some of these were quite playful, as a letter highlighted recently on the Two Nerdy History Girls blog shows.

Austen’s 1817 letter to her young niece, Cassandra Esten Austen, is a bit hard to read even if you are an expert in 19th century handwriting styles. That’s because all the words are spelled backwards. Instead of signing off with “Good bye my dear Cassy,” for instance, Austen wrote “Doog eyb ym raed Yssac.” The letter served as both a New Year’s greeting and a puzzle for the 8-year-old to solve.

A close-up of a handwritten letter with words written backwards
The Morgan Library & Museum, MA 1034.6. Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

The letter is currently on view at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City as part of the museum’s "Treasures From the Vault" exhibition, having been donated to the institution in 1975 by a Jane Austen collector and Morgan Library regular named Alberta Burke.

While any of Austen’s communications would be of interest to fans and literary scholars, this one is particularly unique as a historical object. In it, Austen wishes Cassandra a happy new year and writes about a visit she received from six of Cassandra’s cousins the day before, telling her about the cake they ate, feeding robins, Frank’s Latin studies, and Sally’s new green dress.

A handwritten letter from Jane Austen
The Morgan Library & Museum, MA 1034.6. Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

“Those simple details give a sense of the texture of Austen’s everyday life—and that she thinks to communicate them to her young niece makes clear that ‘Aunt Jane’ knew just the kinds of tidbits a child of that age would relish,” Christine Nelson, the Morgan’s literary and historic manuscripts curator, tells Mental Floss.

Austen would die just six months later, making it a valuable look at the end of her life. As far as we know, no other backwards-written letters like the one sent to Cassandra have survived in Austen’s archives, according to Nelson, but she says she wouldn’t be surprised if the famous author wrote more. “Given her love of riddles and linguistic games (which comes through, of course, in her novels), I have to believe that other family members were the recipients of similarly playful epistolary gifts,” Nelson says.

If you make it to New York City, you can go decode the letter yourself in person. It will be on display at the Morgan Library until March 11, 2018.

[h/t Two Nerdy History Girls]

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