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Mind-Boggling Facts from Bill Bryson's At Home

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Bill Bryson's new book At Home has the subtitle "A Short History of Private Life," but it could be more accurately called "Really Interesting Stuff Nobody Knows."

Stuff like a Stone Age village discovered in Scotland – older than the Great Pyramids – that had built-in dressers, storage shelves, plumbing, and even breezeways between houses.

Or the tale of how salt and pepper became the condiments found on nearly every table. ("Why not pepper and cardamom, say, or salt and cinnamon?" Bryson muses.)

The book touches on everything from dendrochronology to architectural history, with sprawling lemmas that appear to have nothing to do with homes or private life, until they segue tidily into the point at hand. In short, At Home will give you interesting things to talk about at parties for the next hundred years, or at least until Bryson pens another one.

Here are a few of its revelations:

The Mystery Condiment

As late as the 1850s, cruet stands for condiments came with a bottle each for oil and vinegar, a shaker for salt and pepper, and a third shaker for nobody knows what. Although it's far from ancient history, there isn't a shred of evidence to suggest what was commonly stored in the third container. It might have been powdered mustard.

What's a Tuffet?

Did you think it was an ottoman of some sort? Most people think so, but the fact is the only place in history that the word appears is in the nursery rhyme "Little Miss Muffet." Taken in context, it could be a footstool, or it could be a nonsense word invented for the sole purpose of rhyming with "Muffet." The world may never know.


Ever wondered why vitamins go from A through E, then right to K, as if vitamins F through J were banned for bad behavior? The 'K' is actually an abbreviated form of the original name, Koagulations vitamin, given to it by the Danish scientist who discovered it. Even stranger is vitamin C, which ever member of the animal kingdom can make on its own, except for guinea pigs and humans, who must get their necessary daily allowances from their diet.

Short Doors

It's a misconception that doors in old houses are small because people were shorter. Doors, like windows, were expensive, so the people scrimped by making them as small as possible.

Salt and Pepper

While we tend to favor salt today, consuming it even in foods that don't taste salty (an ounce of corn flakes, Bryson points out, has more salt than an ounce of salted peanuts), Romans loved their pepper – they even sprinkled it on their sweets.

Drawing Room

I had assumed the "drawing" in this room's name had something to do with abundant sunlight that made it conducive for Victorian ladies to practice sketching. It is, in fact, an abbreviation of "withdrawing room," a place to get away from everyone else in the house. It sounds a bit less sociable once you know that.


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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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