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7 Historical Bans on Smoking

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Opposition to smoking has been around almost as long as smoking itself, and some of the historical measures to curb lighting up might surprise you.

1. The Pope Cracks Down on Smoke

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Pope Urban VII's papacy began on September 15, 1590. It ended with his death from malaria less than two weeks later. Although he didn't spend much time as the head of the Catholic Church, Urban VII was around long enough to make his feelings on tobacco known. He banned all tobacco "in the porchway of or inside a church, whether it be by chewing it, smoking it with a pipe or sniffing it in powdered form through the nose." The penalty for breaking his edict? Excommunication.

Urban VII's crackdown is considered to be history's first public smoking ban. Various papal bans on smoking stuck around until 1724, when tobacco-loving Pope Benedict XIII gave Catholics the thumbs-up to light up again.

2. King James' Ideal Version of England is Smoke-Free

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King James I of England was no fan of tobacco, but instead of whining about it, he picked up his pen. In 1604, James wrote the treatise A Counterblaste to Tobacco, and he didn't pull any punches, writing, "What honour or policie can move us to imitate the barbarous and beastly maners of the wilde, godlesse, and slavish Indians, especially in so vile and stinking a custom?"

Ouch. Racism aside, James also warned of potential dangers from second-hand smoke and lung damage in addition to making a much simpler argument against tobacco smoke: It stinks. Later, he refers to smoking as "a custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the black and stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomlesse."

For someone with such strong feelings about smoke, James I amazingly didn't ban tobacco altogether, though. He did, however, jack up excise taxes and tariffs on the weed by upwards of 4,000%. Interestingly, early 20th century tobacconist and writer Alfred Dunhill speculated in The Pipe Book that James' hatred of tobacco may have stemmed from how much the monarch loathed Sir Walter Raleigh, who was often seen smoking a pipe and actually turned Queen Elizabeth I on to smoking in 1600.

3. The Sultan Puts Out Smokers

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When Sultan Murad IV took over the Ottoman Empire in 1623, he inherited a land filled with corruption and decadence. He took care of it quickly, though, and by 1633 Murad had banned all tobacco, alcohol, and coffee from his empire. Murad IV made Pope Urban VII look like a pushover--his punishment for breaking the ban was death.

Murad IV didn't leave enforcement to his minions, either. He supposedly walked the streets of Istanbul in plain clothes and used his mace to execute anyone he caught using tobacco. As many as 18 people a day met their demise for smoking until Murad's successor, Ibrahim the Mad, lifted the ban.

At around the same time, Russia instituted a similar ban. First-time offenders would get a slit nose, take a beating, or be exiled in Siberia. Repeat offenders earned themselves an execution. These stiff penalties hung around until Peter the Great came to power in 1682.

4. French Smokers Head to the Doctor for Their Smokes

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French tobacco enthusiasts found themselves on the receiving end of a bit of a curveball in 1635. They could still smoke, but they would have to buy their tobacco from an apothecary. They would also need a doctor's prescription. Luckily for smokers, this restriction didn't last too long. In 1637, King Louis XIII, a snuff fan, repealed all of the anti-tobacco laws.

5. Colonists Turn on Their Cash Crop

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Early American colonists made some nice loot selling tobacco, but that doesn't mean they were totally in favor of using it. In 1632, Massachusetts became wary of the fire danger from smoldering butts, so it banned outdoor smoking. Connecticut followed suit in 1647 when it dictated that citizens could only smoke once a day. Even then, one couldn't be a social smoker, since the law dictated that smokers could only burn one when "not in company with any other." In the 1680s, Philadelphia joined in with a ban on smoking in the city's streets.

6. States Butt Out of the Tobacco Business

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Movies may depict the turn of the 20th century as a time of smoke-filled rooms, but in truth you couldn't even pick up a pack of cigarettes in many states. By 1900, Washington, Iowa, Tennessee, and North Dakota had all banned the sale of cigarettes, and by 1920 11 other states had enacted similar bans.

Some states were quick to ban cigarettes over concerns that customers might be getting more than they bargained for when they bought a pack. When a Tennessean challenged his state's cigarette ban before the Supreme Court in 1900, the justices upheld the prohibition partially due to concern over adulterated smokes, writing, "[T]here are many whose tobacco has been mixed with opium or some other drug, and whose wrapper has been saturated in a solution of arsenic."

Did these bans put an end to American smoking? Not quite. Although buying cigarettes wasn't legal in 15 states, the cigar business was booming. In 1901, four out of every five American men burned at least one stogie a day, and tobacconists sold 6 billion cigars a year. Like the prohibition of alcohol, these cigarette bans gradually fell out of favor, and after Kansas repealed its restrictions in 1927 cigarettes were once again legal in all states.

7. Hitler Takes on Tobacconists

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One thing you might not know about Hitler: He was a rabid opponent of smoking. German scientists were among the first to study the links between tobacco use and lung disease, and the Nazis aggressively sought to suppress tobacco use. In addition to implementing high tobacco taxes, Hitler banned smoking in German universities, government buildings, and Nazi party offices. After 1942, restaurants weren't allowed to sell smokes to female customers.

But when the Nazis fell, their bans fell with them. After the party's 1945 collapse, cigarettes actually became an unofficial currency in Germany's war-ravaged economy.

This story originally ran in January 2010. 

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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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