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The Bizarre Origins of 8 Wedding Traditions

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If the throngs of crazed customers clutching registry printouts at Crate & Barrel are any indication, wedding season is once again upon us. Before you head off to the next joyous union on your jam-packed calendar, let's take a moment to reflect on the rich history of marriage celebrations and revel in the realization that weddings are, at their core, incredibly bizarre.

1. The White Wedding Dress

Technically, today's wedding gowns aren't white. They are "Candlelight," "Warm Ivory," "Ecru" or "Frost." But there was a time when a bride's wedding attire was simply the best thing in her closet (talk about "off the rack"), and could be any color, even black. To convince her groom that she came from a wealthy family, brides would also pile on layers of fur, silk and velvet, as apparently grooms didn't care if his wife-to-be reeked of sweaty B.O. as long as she was loaded. It was dear ol' Queen Victoria (whose reign lasted from 1837-1901) who made white fashionable. She wore a pale gown trimmed in orange blossoms for her 1840 wedding to her first cousin, Prince Albert. Hordes of royal-crazed plebeians immediately began to copy her, which is an astonishing feat considering that People Magazine wasn't around to publish the Super Exclusive Wedding Photos, or instruct readers on how to Steal Vicki's Hot Wedding Style.

2. Giving Away the Bride

Remember that "Women's Studies" class you considered taking in college? Allow us to summarize what you would have learned: All of our society's gender issues stem from the fact that fathers once used their daughters as currency to a) pay off a debt to a wealthier land owner, b) symbolize a sacrificial, monetary peace offering to an opposing tribe, or c) buy their way into a higher social stratum. So next time you tear up watching a beaming father walk his little girl down the aisle, remember that it's just a tiny, barbaric little holdover from the days when daughters were nothing but dollar signs to daddy dearest. And that veil she's wearing? Yeah, that was so the groom wouldn't know if he was stuck with an uggo until it was time to kiss the bride and too late to back out on the transaction. (There is also some superstitious B.S. about warding off evil spirits, but we think you'll agree that hiding a busted grill from the husband-to-be is a more practical purpose.)

3. The Wedding Party

Talk about your runaway brides—the original duty of a "Best Man" was to serve as armed backup for the groom in case he had to resort to kidnapping his intended bride away from disapproving parents. The "best" part of that title refers to his skill with a sword, should the need arise. (You wouldn't want to take the "just okay" member of your weapon-wielding posse with you to steal yourself a wife, would you?)

The best man stands guard next to the groom right up through the exchange of vows (and later, outside the newlyweds' bedroom door), just in case anyone should attack or if a non-acquiescent bride should try to make a run for it. It's said that feisty groups like the Huns, Goths and Visigoths took so many brides by force that they kept a cache of weapons stored beneath the floorboards of churches for convenience. Modern-day best men are more likely to store an emergency six-pack at the ceremony for convenience, but the title remains an apt one.

Ladies: Believe it or not, the concept of the bridesmaid's gown was not invented to inflict painful dowdiness upon the bride's friends and female relatives thus making the bride look hotter by comparison. Historically, that dress you'll never wear again was actually selected with the purpose of tricking the eye of evil spirits and jealous ex-lovers (spicy!). Brides' faithful attendants were instructed to wear a dress similar to that of the bride so that during their group stroll to the church it would be hard for any ill-willed spirits or former boy-toys to spot the bride and curse/kidnap/throw rocks at her. (Ditto for the boys in matching penguin suits, saving the groom from a similar fate.) Memo to the Maid of Honor: if you think organizing a themed shower complete with quiche, cupcakes and creative uses of toilet paper as a game is a tough gig, imagine this: a MoH of old used to be responsible for making nearly all of the wedding decorations and putting them up herself.

4. Garter and Bouquet Toss

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This pair of rituals has long been the scourge of the modern wedding guest. What could possibly be more humiliating than being forced out to the center of a parquet dance floor while a wedding DJ advertises your lack of a boyfriend and then being expected to further demonstrate your desperation by diving for flying flowers? Wait ...Yup, we can top that. How about grasping in the air for a lacy piece of undergarment that until moments ago resided uncomfortably close to the crotch of your buddy's wife? At any other point in time, that would make you a total perv, so why is it acceptable at a wedding? Well, hold on to your scruples boys and girls, because the history behind these customs is downright dirty.

It used to be that after the bride and groom said, "I do," they were to go immediately into a nearby room and "close the deal" and consummate the marriage. Obviously, to really make it official, there would need to be witnesses, which basically led to hordes of wedding guests crowding around the bed, pushing and shoving to get a good view and hopefully to get their hands on a lucky piece of the bride's dress as it was ripped from her body. Sometimes the greedy guests helped get the process going by grabbing at the bride's dress as she walked by, hoping for a few threads of good fortune. In time, it seems, people realized that this was all a bit, well, creepy, and it was decided that for modesty's sake the bride could toss her bouquet as a diversion as she made her getaway and the groom could simply remove an item of the bride's undergarments and then toss it back outside to the waiting throngs to prove that he was about to, uh, get 'er done.

5. Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue (and a Sixpence in My Shoe?)

A common theme that you've no doubt noticed throughout this post: humans used to be a superstitious bunch. This rhyming phrase neatly lists a number of English customs dating back to the Victorian age which, when worn in combination, should bring the bride oodles of fabulous good luck. The something old was meant to tie the bride to her family and her past, while the something new represented her new life as the property of a new family. The item borrowed was supposed to be taken from someone who was already a successfully married wife, so as to pass on a bit of her good fortune to the new bride. The color blue (Virgin Mary-approved!) stood for all sorts of super fun things like faithfulness, loyalty, and purity. The sixpence, of course, was meant to bring the bride and her new groom actual, cold, hard fortune. Just in case that wasn't enough, brides of yore also carried bunches of herbs (which most brides now replace with expensive, out-of-season peonies) to ward off evil spirits.

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6. The Wedding Cake

We have to believe that there was a time, somewhere in history, when the whole, "Will they/won't they smash cake in each other's faces!" scenario was actually clever and original (even if we couldn't find any evidence of it). What we did find was the granddaddy predecessor to cake-face-smashing: the breaking of baked goods over the bride's head. Customarily, the groom would gnaw off a bite of barley bread and then the remainder of the loaf was held above the newlywed bride's head and then broken, showering her with crumbs and a soul-crushing message of her husband's male dominance. Guests would then scramble to pick up any wayward crumbs off the floor as they were said to bring good ... wait for it ... luck!

This tradition evolved as cake emerged as the preferred confection for wedding celebrations. Fortunately for the bride, a whole cake doesn't break in two quite as dramatically as a loaf of bread, and so it was sliced on a table instead. Rather than scrounge for lucky crumbs on the floor, guests would stand in line while the bride passed tiny, fortune-blessed morsels of cake through her own wedding ring into the hands of the waiting masses. This act also fell by the wayside, as we can only assume the bride determined that it was a lousy waste of her time. Thus began the tradition of giving out whole slices of cake to each guest, not to be eaten, but to be placed under their pillow at night for (yup, here it is again) good luck and, for the ladies, sweet dreams of their future husbands. [Image courtesy of alt text.]

7. Refusing to Throw Away the Leftovers

This leads to another sweet, delicious, buttercream-iced mystery to be solved: Why do couples eat freezer-burned wedding cake on their one-year anniversary? To answer this, we must look to the lyrics of a schoolyard classic: First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage! It used to be assumed that when there was a wedding, a christening would follow shortly. So, rather than bake two cakes for the occasions, they'd just bake one big one and save a part of it to be eaten at a later date when the squealing bundle of joy arrived. Eventually folks warmed to the idea of giving the poor kid his own, newly baked cake, but the custom of saving a portion of the wedding cake far longer than it should be saved and then eating it and deluding oneself to believe that it actually tastes good is one that persists to this day.

8. Throwing Rice

Pelting newlyweds with uncooked starchy vegetables is a time-honored tradition meant to shower the new couple with prosperity, fertility and, of course, good fortune. Oats, grains and dried corn were english-wedding.jpgalso used before rice rose to the top as the preferred symbolic sprinkle. Rice lost its popularity when it became widely rumored that if birds ate the rice, it would expand in their stomach and kill them. This is decidedly untrue, as is evidenced by the fact that birds eat dried rice and corn and other dehydrated vegetables and grains from fields all the time and we have yet to see any mention of a national, exploding-bird epidemic running on the CNN news ticker.

Rice can be a hazard to guests, who can lose their footing on rice covered pavement and take a nasty spill. Turns out, even rice alternatives have their drawbacks. Two Texas women were badly injured at a wedding in May 2008 while trying to light celebratory sparklers to send off the bride and groom. The group of sparklers ignited all at once and exploded, burning one woman's face and both of their arms. One guest at a Russian wedding in Chechnya last March decided to buck tradition altogether and threw an armed hand grenade into the unsuspecting crowd, injuring a dozen people. Our advice? Stick with rose petals. They are soft, non-hazardous, non-lethal and biodegradable.

Jenn Thompson is a freelance writer for publications including Charlotte Magazine, Weddings Unveiled, and The Atlantan. For the next few days, she'll be sharing her wedding knowledge with us. Tomorrow: strange wedding laws still on the books.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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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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