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What Killed The Dinner Party?

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By Peter Weber

Oh, dinner parties, says Guy Trebay in The New York Times, with more than a hint of wistfulness. "Remember those?" A great dinner party — to celebrate the holidays, or just because — is a pleasant and personable way to network, a great occasion for different ages and social strata to mix, a fount of great conversation, and "the epitome of civilized living." But sadly, "the world is so changed, hardly anyone does them anymore," says Louise Grunwald, the widow of diplomat and TIME editor Henry Anatole Grunwald. Grunwald's "doomful pronouncement" may sound far-fetched, but she's probably right, Trebay laments. "You may want the dinner party to come back, harkening back to another era," Grunwald says. "But it will never happen." So, just what is it that killed the dinner party? A few theories:

1. A breakdown in society — and "society"

Throwing a great dinner party is an art quickly becoming lost as "social lions and lionesses" — spirited socialite Nan Kempner, cabaret standout Bobby Short, director Nora Ephron, and philanthropists Brooke Astor and Judith Peabody, for example — exit this earthly stage. "When I think of all those great hosts and hostesses who were around when I moved to New York" in 1980, says cookbook author Alex Hitz, "many are now gone with the wind." A good host was "trained from birth or on the job" to command their tables like a military tactician, says Trebay. "Naturally they shared other likenesses: Social prominence, deep pockets, commodious apartments, household staffs, and no allergy to drink." But it's not just that "society's elite are throwing fewer parties," says Bethany Seawright at Apartment Therapy. "As a society in general, we are allowing this type of evening to disappear from our personal experience," and that's sad for the "socially-impoverished among us all."

2. The rise of restaurants

As our time gets seemingly ever-more-precious, our tastes get intimidatingly sophisticated, and we fall out of the habit of cooking for ourselves, celebrity-chef and foodie-oriented restaurants are taking the place of the dinner party table. Let's face it, says Trebay: For better or worse, "it's so much easier and more convenient to meet friends in restaurants." Of course, this is nothing new. Trish Hall, also writing in The New York Times, noted — in 1988 — that when would-be hostesses and guests want to socialize, "they go to restaurants or have a small party catered" instead, because "the thought of preparing and serving a meal — an impressive meal that will satisfy increasingly sophisticated palates — is overwhelming." There is a modern twist, though,says Kat Stoeffel at New York. Today, we also have "too many restaurant Groupons to use before they expire/Groupon goes bankrupt."

3. Social media

Websites like Facebook and LinkedIn are replacing face-to-face networking for many people, and smartphones and other handheld devices have been disastrous for the social contract, says etiquette columnist Judith Martin, better known as Miss Manners. "People don't even respond to dinner invitations anymore," she tells The Times. "They consider it too difficult a commitment to say, 'I'll come to dinner a week from Saturday,'" and they think nothing of canceling at the last minute — by text message! And those guests who do show up, says New York's Stoeffel, "will Instagram pictures of our not-good cooking, and everyone will know." And when they post those photos to Facebook or Twitter, "the friends we didn't invite will feel left out."

4. Ignorance

Along with the lost-art aspect, people just don't know the mechanics of dinner parties anymore. That's given rise to a small (probably very small) cottage industry of event planners like David E. Monn who will teach socialites which forks to use and how to mix the perfect cocktail. "People want to be civilized, so it all doesn't turn into Caligula," Monn tells The Times. "So they come to me saying: 'I don't know what to do if I'm having friends over for cocktails. What tray do you use? What do you put on the tray? Do you put out a piece of cheese?'" So if you want to know "whether the curious tongs inherited from Aunt Mabel are meant for serving asparagus, or else flipping a hamburger on the grill," says Trebay, there's help out there.

5. Dietary restrictions

And then there's what Miss Manners calls "food fussing," or the growing list of things people can't (or won't) eat. In the 1970s, vegetarians were considered difficult guests; now, even vegans are relatively easy to accommodate. Nut allergies, gluten intolerance, no-sugar diets, paleo (or cave-man) diets — "it's too hard to plan a menu with everyone's fake allergies and dietary restrictions," says New York's Stoeffel.

6. We don't converse, we pontificate

Dinner parties were never really about the food. After all, "the idea of cooking for others is not something that is going to die," Miss Manners tells The Times. But "conversation is in trouble," and without that main course, a dinner party isn't a dinner party. The problem? "People have been brought up to express themselves rather than to exchange ideas." There were always boors, but back in the dinner party era, says Trebay, a master hostess "orchestrated every element of the evening, arrival to departure, most crucially directing the conversation, which they either allowed to follow a traditional serve-and-volley pattern (20 minutes right, 20 minutes left), or else commandeered for so-called 'general discussion' as provocateur hosts like the television journalist Barbara Walters still do."

...Actually, the dinner party isn't dead at all

Naturally, since Trebay's nostalgic look at a bygone era appeared in the rather highfalutin New York Times Style section, lots of people disagree with the very premise. Dinner parties aren't dead, they've just been appropriated by "hipsters," and more specifically "that hipster hybrid, foodie-hipsters (fipsters? fooipstershoopsters?)," says Jen Doll at The Atlantic Wire. How did The Times get it so wrong? "Perhaps unsurprisingly for a newspaper that has only just discovered Brooklyn," says Kristin Iversen at The L Magazine, Trebay "interviewed people like Louise Grunwald and Judith Peabody who, while lovely people, I'm sure, are not perhaps the trend-setters that they used to be."

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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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.