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Clothing Time: The Stories Behind 4 Famous Uniforms

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This marks the first time we've lumped together priests, soldiers and Playboy bunnies in one article. Common element: they all dress for success.

1. School Uniforms

If you were stuck in pleated plaid skirts or ugly neckties throughout your school days, you probably want to know which direction to launch your spitballs. In this case, the British seem to be the main culprits. Just like today, economics, safety, and prestige were the main justifications for the school uniform.


The first school uniforms appeared in England during the sixteenth century at charity schools. Apprentices and children in charity schools were often dressed in blue because it was the cheapest available dye for clothing. (The aristocracy tended to shun the color for the same reason.) Children at Christ's Hospital School in Sussex were issued a long blue coat. Still worn by students today, the uniform includes an ankle-length coat, white neckband similar to the ones worn by eighteenth-century clergy, knee breeches, and yellow stockings. (You may want to rethink those complaints about your old dress code right about now.)

By the eighteenth century, uniforms became popular in British public schools for a different reason. Boys from wealthy families showed up to school in their rough-and-tumble clothes and proceeded to play unrestrained versions of rugby, football, and cricket. The games were often dangerous and chaotic, and some families chose to educate their sons at home to avoid the fracas. The institution of uniforms, along with stricter supervision, helped turn the British school system into one of the most prestigious in Europe. Unlike the students in the original Bluecoat uniforms, wealthy boys and girls had several fine versions of dress for different occasions, and the attire soon came to represent school pride.

2. Playboy Bunnies

play-b.jpgNo joke—the famous costumes, now popular in Halloween stores, were the first service uniform to be registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. (Trademark number 0762884, for those who want to do more research on the subject.)


When Playboy founder and editor-in-chief Hugh Hefner decided to open up Playboy Clubs in 1959, he intended to call the hostesses "Playmates," like the women in his magazine, and dress them in skimpy lingerie. Ilse Taurins, then girlfriend of Playboy executive Victor Lownes, gets credit for the idea to dress the hostesses like the signature tuxedoed Playboy Bunny character instead. Taurins's mother made the prototype, which resembled a strapless bathing suit complete with fluffy tail and ears, and Taurins modeled the outfit for Hefner. Hef especially loved the tail and instituted a "look but don't touch" policy for his Bunnies. (The penalty for a member touching a Bunny tail was expulsion from the club.)

In 1962, Hefner hired French seamstress Renée Blot to "upgrade" the suit. She added a bowtie and cuffs, cinched the waist, and created a stiff D-cup bust, which the Bunnies stuffed with everything from socks to cottontails. The Playboy clubs closed in the United States in 1988, but the outfits live on.

3. Roman Catholic Priests

priest-collar.jpgReligious uniforms have been around since antiquity to show that holy men are different from everyone else, but, ironically, one of the most recognizable religious uniforms sprang from priests just trying to be trendy. At the end of the sixteenth century, Romans started turning down their collars, and, not wanting to appear unfashionable, the clergy did the same. The clergy also adorned their collars with lace and fancy needlework, which made the cloth difficult to clean. To keep the beautiful collars fresh, a changeable sleeve of white linen protected them from soil.

Unfortunately for the fashion-conscious clergy, Pope Urban VIII saw the lacy collars as frivolous and banned the use of lace entirely, but he did allow the protective sleeve to remain. That sleeve soon became the ubiquitous symbol that a priest was available to perform the sacraments, including baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, marriage, confession, and the last rites.

4. Military Uniforms

army-uni.jpgBefore the age of long-range weaponry, it was essential for standing armies to be able to identify their brethren—including different regiments—easily. (In other words: they didn't want to shoot each other.) Early armies sported superficially similar military dress, but the troops of the Byzantine Empire are the first known army to identify different regiments by costume. In the tenth century CE, each member of the cavalry sported plumes and other items in distinctive colors.


Uniforms grew more lavish over time, with colorful uniforms the norm up until World War I. Amidst the often flamboyant outfits of other countries, the German and the British looked drab. German rifleman wore felgrau (field gray), probably as a symbol of their status as foresters and hunters who were recruited for service, while the British dressed in khaki, a convenience most likely left over from colonialism in Africa and India. Though the uniforms were not designed as camouflage, they soon proved an advantage to the Brits and Germans and other armies began incorporating gray and khaki in their apparel.

After discovering the benefit of blending with the scenery, the Germans took the concept further, to help break up the easily identifiable shape of the human outline. Before the start of World War II, Oberkommando Wehrmacht issued the "splinter pattern" as the first official form of camouflage. Soon every country had a distinctive camouflage uniform that fulfilled both the purposes of concealment and identification. As for those bright colors, they became relegated to ceremonial wear.

This piece was written by Liz Hunt and excerpted from the mental_floss book In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything. You can pick up a copy in our store.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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