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7 Ways People Woke Up, Pre-Alarm Clock

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Not to, er, sound a note of alarm or anything, but you'll notice roosters are nowhere to be found on this list. That's because roosters will (and do) 'cock a doodle doo all night long, if they're awake. Trust me. I know this to be true after spending a long, sleepless night at a small inn on a small Greek island in the middle of a brutally cold winter.

Now then.

1. Bladder Control

Early man drank tons and tons of water if he needed to wake up before the sun. Why? Well, if you're over the age of 30 or so, you probably know what getting up in the middle of the night to urinate is all about. The custom of "over-drinking" before bed was even utilized by Native American Indians well into the 20th century.

2. The Clepsydra

Speaking of water, water clocks were used by the earliest civilizations for thousands of years. They weren't so much clocks as they were timers, working much in the same way a common hourglass works. It wasn't until 245 B.C. that Ctesibius of Alexandria improved the clepsydra, or 'water thief' as it was known, and created the world's first mechanical clock. Its mind-boggling to think about what Ctesibius accomplished: seasonal cycles required irregular water levels be dispensed into a receiving vessel with equidistant hour-marks, while daily cycles required varying hour-marks and regular efflux. Making the clepsydra an alarm clock required nothing more than a floating bob that struck an alarm once it reached a desired level. Later versions turned gears, signaling an alarm or even springing a catapult that launched a pellet into a metallic plate.

3. Religious Wake-Up Calls

Picture uIn many early Christian societies, bells called churchgoers to prayer in the morning. Religious bells also served to mark the passage of time throughout the day before people wore watches. In most Islamic traditions, audible tones and prayers marked the start of the day (just as they do today). The Fajr (literally "dawn") is the first of five daily prayers blasted out through the village. Four more prayers follow the sun and help mark the passage of time day in, day out.

4. Peg Clocks

About the year 1555, Taqi al-Din Muhammad ibn Ma'ruf (who must have had a heck of a time signing his signature on checks!) invented a few different types of mechanical alarm clocks, including one the would sound at any desired time. This was achieved by placing a peg into a hole on the face of the clock. Taqi al-Din was born in Syria and schooled in Cairo. Similar clocks were also developed around the same time in Western Europe.

5. The Knocker-Up

knockerupThe Knocker-Up (also referred to as a Knocker-Upper) gained prominence during the Industrial Revolution by using a long stick with wire or a knob affixed to the end to rouse customers at a desired time. Clients would agree verbally, in advance, or simply post a preferred time on doors or windows. For a few pence a week, clients could rest assured knowing their Knocker Upper would not leave until he (Knocker Ups were almost always men) was certain a person was awake. Larger Factories and Mills often employed their own Knocker Ups to ensure laborers made it to work on time.

6. The Factory Whistle

factory whistleAt the dawn of The Industrial Age, workers lived around the factory at which they worked, and would wake at the sound of the factory whistle. Steel and textile mills drew in farmers from the countryside, and like that, ding-ding, the clock ruled the roost. Time was always money. But now time could also be regulated more easily. Work was no longer driven by the season; rather it was divided into units of time. It was the factory whistle, not the rising sun or the chirping birds that called people to work.

7. Levi Hutchens' 4 am Alarm

In 1787, Levi Hutchens of Concord, New Hampshire, invented another incipient alarm clock. Built into a simple pine box, a gear mechanism set off a bell. However, the bell on his clock could ring only at 4 am, not coincidentally the time Levi needed to get up for work! Finally, on October 24, 1876 a mechanical wind-up alarm clock that could be set for any time was patented by Seth E Thomas.

Stay in the loop with all my _flossings by following me on Twitter: @resila and be sure to follow all our great writers: @mental_floss.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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