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The Ladies' Privilege: Encouraging Women to Propose on Leap Day

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Even with all the strides towards equality that women have made in the past hundred years, it's still fairly uncommon for a woman to propose to a man. But a century ago, proposals by women were not only acceptable, they were a common occurrence—at least on February 29th.

How did it start?

The legend goes that St. Bridget of Ireland was frustrated that all the non-nun ladies in 5th century Ireland had to sit around waiting for proposals that might never come. She complained about it to St. Patrick who, probably impressed by Bridget’s ability to turn her used bathwater into beer, finally proclaimed that women could have the chance to propose themselves once every four years on the leap day. This became known as “The Ladies’ Privilege.”

Another part of the legend says that in 1288, Queen Margaret of Scotland made it law that any man who dared turn down a proposal must pay his girlfriend a fine. Different sources say this fine took the form of a kiss, a silk gown, expensive gloves, or simply cold hard cash.

As fun as the story is, it is almost certainly not true.

Despite decades of searching, no record of such a law has been found. (It would have been difficult for Margaret to write the law anyway, as she was five years old in 1288.)

A later legend said that refusing meant perpetual bad fortune for the man. A more recent old wives tale said that women who planned on proposing during a leap year must wear a bright red petticoat to do it, presumably to give the gentleman some warning. Since red petticoats went in and out of fashion all the time, this must have caused unfortunate confusion.

What is true is that leap years, and particularly leap days, were considered such a ridiculous anomaly that many odd traditions sprung up around them. A play from the 1600s states that women can ditch their dresses and wear “breeches” in a leap year. Babies conceived or born on leap day were considered to be especially lucky. Leap years were thought to be the best time to start a new business. And because it wasn’t a “real” day and normal societal rules did not apply, February 29th was the only acceptable day for women to propose.

Despite the claim that the tradition goes back 1,600 years, no mention of actual gender-reversed proposals on that day show up until the 1700s; their occurrences peaked in the early 1900s. The popular postcards of the day poked fun at the practice with images of harridan women who dared propose, and emasculated men who said yes (sometimes only under pain of death.)

In 1937, the author of the Li’l Abner comic strip took the idea of women proposing on leap day and turned it into a running gag. But instead of occurring on February 29th, he placed it on the November birthday of the comic’s resident spinster, Sadie Hawkins, from which we get the name of the dance.

Who’s done it?

A handful of famous women have proposed to their husbands, although sadly none that we can find on a leap day.

In 1839 Queen Victoria proposed to Albert, a situation necessitated by the fact that she held a much higher rank than him. Victoria recorded in her diary,

“At about half past 12 I sent for Albert; he came to the [room] where I was alone, and after a few minutes I said to him, that I thought he must be aware of why I wished [him] to come here, and that it would make me too happy if he would consent to what I wished (to marry me); we embraced each other over and over again, and he was so kind, so affectionate…I told him I was quite unworthy of him and kissed his dear hand.”

Zsa Zsa Gabor has claimed that she proposed to all of her nine husbands. The first proposal was when she was only 15 years old, to her 35-year-old boyfriend, a Turkish official named Burhan Asaf Belge. It was Gabor’s parents who provided the ring, sporting a ten carat diamond, for their daughter.

More recently, celebrities such as Halle Berry, Jennifer Hudson, Heather Mills, and the singer Pink have admitted to proposing to their husbands (or ex-husbands).

Should you do it?

There are no official traditions around how propose to your man, although many businesses, especially in the UK, offer special proposal packages and discounts for women getting down on one knee. So be creative and have fun with it, but be careful: According to one poll, only 56% of men currently in relationships would say yes if asked today. But another poll found that the tide is turning in the woman’s favor: More than half of women polled and 48% of men said that a woman proposing was a sign they were bold and modern, not “scary” or “desperate.”

Bizarre postcard images via Slate and Monmouth University.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

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.

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