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Barbershop of Horrors: 5 Hairstyle Origins

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If you've ever looked at someone's haircut and wondered who could have possibly thought that was a good idea, this one's for you.

1. Mohawks

The Style: Originally sported by warriors of various Native American tribes, the hairstyle was adopted by a squad of the U.S. Army's bad-to-the-bone 101st Airborne Division during World War II, before being commandeered by punk rockers in the 1970s.

The Story: Up until a few years ago, no one would have questioned the mohawk's roots. However, in 2003, an Irish peat harvester made a discovery that would change the hairstyle's history forever—a 2,300-year-old corpse, remarkably well preserved by the unique chemistry of a peat bog, sporting a bonafide 'hawk.

The Shocker: The ancient Irish punker, dubbed Clonycavan Man, had gel in his hair, which archaeologists determined was made from vegetable oil mixed with a resin from southwestern France or Spain. Imported hair product? Today, scientists are still working hard to determine whether Clony was a prehistoric punker or just an Iron Age metrosexual.

2. Pompadours

elvis.jpgThe Style: If the word brings to mind images of pink Cadillacs and bouffant 'dos, you're on the right track. But in the same way America borrowed rock "˜n' roll from the blues and method acting from the Russians, the key to those 1950s locks lies in 18th-century France.

The Story: The Marquise de Pompadour was King Louis XV's über-fashionable mistress, and her elaborately teased, upswept hair was imitated by high-society women throughout the country. While 20th-century pompadours were considerably tinier than those of its namesake's, the modern version claims one definitive advantage: technology. Where today's science has yielded hair wax, putty, glue, and paste to cement them into place, pomps of yore depended on beef tallow, bear grease, and other artery-cloggers.

The Shocker: Not surprisingly, slathering one's hair with animal remains tended to attract animals (insects and other nasties), which occasionally turned the original pompadour into, quite literally, a rats' nest.

3. Beehives

marge-beehive.jpgThe Style: Speaking of rats' nests (and the Marquise de Pompadour, for that matter), the beehive of the 1960s is itself a 200-year throwback to the 1760s Big Hair Days.

The Story: There's more to those 18th-century bouffant styles than meets the eye. Whereas the modern beehive is nicknamed "the B-52" for its uncanny resemblance to the B-52 bomber's distinctive nose, Marie Antoinette and her gal pals stowed actual warships in their hair—or at least miniature replicas of them.

The Shocker: Like precursors to the Cracker Jack box, these 18th-century 'dos served as treasure troves, housing exotic prizes like tiny caged birds, cupid dolls, and other bulky curios. Of course, not every hairdo was a winner. When millions of hungry peasants revolutionized France, the over-the-top hairstyle quickly fell out of fashion—landing in that little basket just below the guillotine.

4. Queues

manchu-queue.jpgThe Style: When the Manchu invaded China in the 17th century, they brought over a killer fashion trend—killer as in, adopt it or else.

The Story: The Manchu sported the queue, a shaved-in-front, ponytail-in-the-back haircut, and forced the Han Chinese to do the same. The effect? Quite a lot of protest.

The Shocker: While much of China eventually submitted to the do-or-die trend, many thousands bravely chose to keep their hair—and lose their heads. So what was the big deal with getting a little shave? Aside from the queue not being such a flattering cut (even compared to, say, the mullet), it also happened to be against the religion of millions of long-haired Confucian Chinese, who believe that one's skin and hair are sacred.

5. Mullets

mullet-gibson.jpgThe Style: A fad gone bad or the most reviled haircut in history? Popularized by David Bowie and others during the glam 'ol days of the 1970s, the mullet was adopted (and expanded voluminously upon) in the 1980s by hard rockers and their headbanging army of fans. As hair metal gave way to grunge and alternative music in the early 1990s, a term was coined to describe those who still clung to the headbangers' signature cut—"mullet heads."

The Story: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, which inducted "mullet" into its venerable lexicon in 2001, the word (as it refers to a hairstyle) was "apparently coined, and certainly popularized, by U.S. hip-hop group the Beastie Boys" in their 1995 song "Mullet Head."

The Shocker: Since making it into the OED, ridicule of the bemulleted has grown increasingly vocal and, judging from a random sampling of anti-mullet Web sites, rather virulent. The mullet is the one haircut Americans love to hate—and give funny names to. To list a few: The Tennessee Top Hat, The Kentucky Waterfall, and The Camaro Crash Helmet. Our personal favorite, however, is The Missouri Compromise, which manages to reference both the haircut's "business in the front, party in the back" policy, as well as the shameful Compromise of 1820, which regulated slavery in developing U.S. territories.

[This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. If you're in a subscribing mood, here are the details.]

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
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.