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9 Strange Courtship Rituals From Around the World

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Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Love wasn't always as simple as putting a ring on it. Here's how the dating game has been played in various cultures over the years.

1. The Apple of My Armpit

Talk about a real test of devotion: in 19th-century rural Austria, eligible lasses would keep an apple slice crammed in their armpits during dances. At the end of the evening, the girl would give her used fruit to the guy she most fancied. If the feeling was mutual, he’d wolf down the stinky apple. (Something’s telling us Austrian guys weren’t too broken up over the death of this ritual.)

2. You're Sew Pretty

The Puritans were predictably a little leery of wedding rings, which they saw as frivolous. Instead, a young bride-to-be would receive a thimble from her fiancé. (Even the Puritans couldn’t deny a practical gift like a thimble.) The girl could then use the thimble while sewing items she’d need for her new home, and when the wedding rolled around, she could cut the bottom off of the thimble and wear it as a super-practical wedding ring.

3. Man and Knife

As recently as the 19th century, Finnish girls who had reached a marriageable age would wear an empty sheath on their girdle. If one of these young ladies caught a man’s eye, he would make or buy a knife to put in her sheath. A girl would return the knife of a would-be suitor if she wasn’t interested, but keeping his blade meant that she agreed to marry him. (Nobody’s giving this ritual any points for subtlety.)

4. Tangy Romance

Amish courtship is notoriously secretive. In some communities, fellow citizens don’t even know a wedding is in the works until the marriage is announced in church a few weeks before the big day. Amish sleuths can usually sniff out impending nuptials by poking around in a family’s garden, though: Hot creamed celery is a main dish at Amish wedding feasts, so if a family loads up its garden with stalks, they're probably getting ready to marry off one of their daughters.

5. The Welsh Love Spooning

When Welsh couples talk about “spooning,” they don't mean cuddling. Since at least the 17th century, the Welsh have exchanged “lovespoons,” intricately hand-carved wooden spoons, as signs of romantic intentions. Young men spent hours meticulously crafting their spoons so they could offer their crushes the most magnificent utensil imaginable. If the gal accepted the spoon, the courtship was on. The courtship aspect of the spoons has since faded, but lovespoons are still given on special occasions as tokens of admiration and affection.

6. Need a Love Shack? Call Your Dad

In some African groups like the Zulus, fathers haven’t allowed suitors to visit their daughters at home. They were far from prudish, though. Daughters got their own “courting huts” in which they could entertain suitors away from the watchful eyes of their parents.

7. Victorian Women: Just Not That Into You

Nowadays if a woman really, really wants to rebuff your advances, she can always give you a good whack or splash a drink in your face. Victorian belles had a subtler, but infinitely more withering, mode of attack: if a lady wasn’t interested, she would simply rest her fan on her left cheek. In an era when talking it out was definitely not an option, Victorian ladies devised an elaborate system of codes using their trusty hand fans.

Lady’s fanning slowly? Already spoken for. Fanning quickly? She’s on the market. Fan rests on the right cheek? Lucky you, she’s interested! Time to get your stilted, formal Victorian court on!

8. Gypsies Grab a Girl. Literally.

The 2011 British reality series Big Fat Gypsy Weddings introduced the world to an unexpected courtship ritual called “grabbing.” Gypsy girls are famously chaste and aren’t allowed to date, so if a boy wants to catch a girl’s attention, he manhandles her in an attempt to get a smooch. Disturbing? Yes. Violent? Yes. Effective? Apparently.

9. Carry a Big Stick

Eighteenth-century New England couples had a tricky problem when it came to exchanging tender words: they had zero privacy, and who wants to coo sweet nothings into his girl’s ear while her dad watches? Enter an ingenious invention called the courting stick or courting tube. This six-foot-long hollow tube allowed couples to exchange whispered words of affection from a safe distance while family members remained in the room to make sure there was nothing as salacious as hand-holding going on.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

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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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