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The Quick 10: 10 Quirks of Old Houses

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I love old houses. We live in a 1923 Arts and Crafts with a lot of its original charms (see #1), so I might be slightly biased, but I really do think you get a lot of unique features you don't often see in newer houses. Here are 10 quirky things you might discover if you're house hunting for an oldie-but-goodie.

1. Mother In Law Bed. This is one of the weird things we found in our house. It's not a Murphy Bed, which cranks out of the wall - it's a bed that actually cranks out of the ceiling. I don't think you'd actually want to sleep on it, but we got great use out of it when we cranked it down and used it as the bar for a party last summer. It's kind of hard to tell in the picture, but if you look you can see the wires that crank it up into the ceiling and the exposed corner on the left that shows where you would insert the iron leg to keep the bed stable once you cranked it down to sleep on it.

2. Built-in-beehives. Don't call an exterminator - these beehives are supposed to be there. These were actually installed on purpose for the convenience of the beekeeping homeowner. Pipes go through the walls and behind the walls were beehives. The bees could move about freely through the pipes and make honey. When someone in the kitchen downstairs wanted honey, they simply trekked up the stairs, removed the back of the hive and grabbed themselves a little syrup. If they had a lot of honey to take back downstairs, hopefully they had #3 on our list...

3. Dumbwaiters. Any little kid who read Harriet the Spy when they were young wanted a dumbwaiter in their house, right? Or maybe that was just me. Despite what Harriet used it for (spying, of course), dumbwaiters were not meant to carry people - they were most often used as kitchen help, to carry dishes and things when the kitchen and dining room were on different levels of the house. They're still utilized in some restaurants today, and a more modern version can be found in libraries and large office buildings to ferry large amounts of books and files from floor to floor.

4. Coal chutes. This is another one we have in our house. It's all sealed up and isn't used, of course - we certainly don't heat our house with coal these days - but there's a big iron door visible on the outside of our house where shipments of coal would be shoveled in.

5. Servant staircases. Our house isn't nearly grand enough to necessitate a servant staircase, but in really large old mansions that required a large household staff to keep it running, servants were expected to stay out of sight. You wouldn't want your well-heeled guests running into the maid on the staircase, would you? How gauche. The solution was a separate staircase in the back just for servant use. If you've ever run across a kitchen or pantry that could be accessed by two staircases and wondered what on earth the purpose was, now you know. In modern times, I think a servant's staircase would nicely serve a teenager trying to sneak out of the house at night.

6. Phone Niche. Not so long ago, landlines were essential to communication. And they weren't the tiny little unintrusive devices we know today - they were big, heavy, cumbersome things that took up a fair amount of space. To try to keep them off of countertops and out of the way, home builders started making niches in walls. It seems as though a lot of people are repurposing the niches these days as a mail catch-all or a place to sit a plant or two. BoingBoing's Mark Frauenfelder found one in his friend's house (it was built for Jean Harlow!) and thought perhaps it was a place to store champagne or milk bottles; it was later concluded that the spot used to be a phone niche and was divided into a place to vertically store mail once the phone was no longer needed there.

7. Butler's Pantry. I wish this was one of the things that came with our house - how nice would it be to have a giant pantry separate from your kitchen? Old houses usually have such tiny kitchens that it would be nice to store your food elsewhere. But actually, they didn't all store food - some just contained extra counter space and sinks so the servants could do their thing out of sight (God forbid you should have to make eye contact with the help, right?). In Europe, the silver was often kept in the Butler's Pantry and the butler would actually have to sleep in there to guard the silver.

8. Milk doors. It's been a while since any of us had milk delivered to our back doors, I would think, but back when that was the norm, that feature was standard with a lot of houses. The milkman would open a tiny door on the side of the house, usually right next to the main door, and leave the milk in between the walls, basically. Then the homeowners could open the door on their side and remove the bottles. Voila! Fresh milk to go with your breakfast.

9. Root cellars. I have a grandma who still has a root cellar. I don't think she uses it now, but it's there! It looks just like the one in The Wizard of Oz - you have to go outside to access the cellar and it was the first place you'd go if you saw a twister off in the distance. As the name suggests, it was used to store veggies for long periods of time. My grandma used hers for canned goods - not tins of spaghetti sauce or Green Giant niblets, but veggies from her garden she canned in Mason jars (she still makes really awesome strawberry rhubarb jam from fruit she grows herself).

10. Cold closets. By the time I was born, my grandma (a different one than the one with the cellar) had owned an electric refrigerator and freezer combo for decades. But she still referred to the whole shebang as the "icebox." The icebox was a free-standing piece of furniture that held a big block of ice near the top to keep the contents frozen. Icemen delivered new blocks of ice every day, just like the milkman. But a cold closet was built into the house and couldn't actually keep things frozen, just cool - so while you could keep your veggies and cheese and meats cool, stocking ice cream in the cold closet would be a bad idea.

Do you have an old house with a quirk you love (or hate)? Do tell.




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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.