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12 Terrible Pieces of Advice for Pregnant Women

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When you’re pregnant, your body is in one very literal sense no longer completely your own. But in another, more uncomfortable sense, it’s become a public entity—because complete strangers think it’s absolutely fine to comment on what you’re eating, how you’re exercising (or not, in my case), even how you’re walking. We’ve compiled some of the best worst pregnancy advice through the ages. Please don't tell any pregnant women they shouldn't look at monkeys.

1. Wear a Corset!

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Women in the Victorian era were big corset-wearers. And despite explicit medical advice not to and concern that tight lacing could harm the developing fetus, not to mention all those soft lady organs in there, they often wore corsets into their pregnancies. Lucy Worsley, chief curator at Britain’s Historic Royal Palaces, in her book If Walls Could Talk, noted that, “It was hard to persuade women to take off their stays, even under the most extreme conditions.”

Manufacturers even marketed “maternity corsets,” a bit like the maternity girdles of today (Spanx even makes one). However, according to the University of Virginia’s Claude Moore Health Sciences Library page on body modification, maternal corsets were not designed to support the growing bump: “Instead, the corsets were designed to mask, even minimize, the size of the pregnant body.”

Take this with a bit of a grain of salt: Many people were born during the Victorian era (too many, if you ask Malthus), and certainly not all of them were ill-shapen monsters because their mothers wore corsets. Moreover, women who could went into “confinement” sometimes many weeks before the birth, shutting themselves away from the public eye; they probably didn’t wear corsets in those last months.

Though widespread corset use died out by the end of the Edwardian era, some women were fans of the corset in pregnancy even on into the 20th century, as the self-published manifesto of one Pat Carter, writing in the 1950s, attests. Carter, who lived in Titusville, Florida, had made something of a sensation of herself when she delivered her seventh child all by herself, aided only by a few whiskey highballs. In her manifesto on homebirthing, Come Gently, Sweet Lucinda, she recommended women wear boned corsets during pregnancy. “BONED, B-O-N-E-D,” she stressed. “This will really stop the little rascal.” From doing what, other than growing, is unclear. (Thanks to Randi Hutter Epstein, whose fabulous book, Get Me Out, is a treasure trove of birthing knowledge, for introducing me to Mrs. Carter. Other gems from Mrs. Carter include minimizing your calcium intake to soften your growing baby’s bones, making sliding out of the birth canal easier.)

2. Don't Eat!


Mrs. Carter was also a proponent of the starvation diet during pregnancy as a way to “prevent the pooch,” by which we assumed she means the growing fetus. She wasn’t alone, however, in recommending that pregnant women eat even less than they did when they were not pregnant: Randi Hutter Epstein found an article from the March 1956 McCall’s magazine advocating a strict diet for expecting mothers—to keep them thin. Of course, the 1950s weren’t exactly a time of sensible maternal advice; after all, some women were prescribed thalidomide for morning sickness, with disastrous results for the infant.

3. If You Do Eat, Avoid Hares' Heads!


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According to medieval lore, what the expecting mother ate would influence her child’s appearance. So, according to The Distaff Gospels of the 15th century, eating hares’ heads would result in a child with a split or harelip. Eating fish heads would produce a child with a trout pout, or a mouth “more turned up and pointed than normal.” And eating soft cheese would make your unborn boy’s penis small. Notably, eating soft and unpasteurized cheese is actually on the naughty list according to modern doctors, but less because of the penis-cheese link and more because of the listeria-cheese link.

The link between maternal consumption and infant characteristics persisted well into the 19th and 20th centuries; for example, women in around 1900 were told to avoid salty or sour foods, like pickles, to keep their baby from developing a “sour disposition.”

4. Avoid Cherries! (At Least When They're Thrown At You)

Don’t throw cherries at a pregnant woman. Another one from The Distaff Gospels, this claimed that “cherries, strawberries or red wine” thrown in the face of a pregnant woman would cause marks on the baby’s body. So don’t do it.

5. Don’t Attend Sporting Events!

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Watching sports might be too exciting for a pregnant woman, according to a pregnancy advice manual from the 1940s.

6. Don't Read!

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Sporting events weren’t the only exciting things to be avoided: Advice unearthed by Tommy’s Campaign, a UK charity that supports research on pregnancy, miscarriage and stillbirth, shows that women were told to avoid “exciting books, breathtaking pictures or family quarrels.”

7. Have A Smoke!

Doctors were aware of the ill effects maternal smoking had on the growing fetus from the 1920s; one early study noted that when the mother smoked, the fetal heartbeat rose precipitously, an effect they called “tobacco heart.” Later studies linked maternal smoking with low birth-weights, an increase in stillbirths and neonatal deaths. But the medical community tended to keep quiet about the links between adverse birth outcomes and smoking. In the 1940s and 1950s, tobacco companies ran ad campaigns where doctors endorsed their products. In fact, some advice implied that smoking was actually good for you and for the expecting mother because it was so relaxing. That’s why the indomitable Mrs. Carter recommends smoking.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that their findings on smoking and the impact on the fetus were made available to the wider public. And even then, it wasn’t until the 1980s that a nationwide campaign kicked off to get mothers to put out their cigarettes.

8. Don't Cut Your Hair!

There is a marvelous old superstition that persists to this day—ask any Russian baboushka or Southern grandma—that cutting your hair during pregnancy is a no-no. Exactly why isn’t entirely clear; some say that it’s because cutting your hair can make it drier or visiting the salon can harm your child somehow. Others, however, who are closer to the original purpose of the myth claim that you’re cutting your life-force. That’s right, Samson and Delilah style.

When women are pregnant, oftentimes their hair becomes shinier, grows faster, and is generally shampoo-commercial gorgeous (before it all falls out when the baby is about three to four months old). This is down to the hormones the pregnant body produces, which also slow your hair’s falling out; it also tallies with the notion that hair equals life force, so cutting it could harm the child. Obviously, there is no real link between the two, but it’s an old wives’ tale that’s really hung in there.

There is, however, one good non-medical reason not to cut your hair: Decisions made under the influence of pregnancy hormones may not be very good decisions. Vicki Iovine in The Girlfriends’ Guide to Pregnancy notes, “I know how simple and carefree a short, boyish bob cut can sound at about seven months, but pregnancy is not the time to try it out.”

9. Don't Have Sex With a Man With Stinky Feet!


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This advice is probably a bit barn door and escaped horse, but medieval women believed that if the baby was conceived while the man had “dirty and smelly feet,” according to The Distaff Gospels, then the child would be born with some inherited stink. If it was a boy, then “unpleasant breath,” and if it was a girl, “a stinky rear end.” Also, the first child conceived by two virgins is “bound to be simple.” Sorry.

10. Don't Raise Your Arms Above Your Head!

Even now, some women are advised by their grandmothers and other well-meaning older folk not to raise their arms over their heads, especially in the later months of pregnancy, or risk getting the baby’s umbilical cord wrapped around its neck. This is absolutely untrue, but if it does get you out of having to do things like hang clothes on a line, then by all means.

11. Don't Look At Monkeys!


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Or parrots! There was a pervasive belief from antiquity on that what a pregnant woman looked at would be somehow manifest in her child. In 1858, the Archduchess Sophia, mother-in-law to Empress Elisabeth of Austria, wrote to her son the Emperor Franz Joseph to warn him about his pregnant wife’s love of animals: “I do not think Sisi ought to spend so much time with her parrots, for if a woman is always looking at animals, specially during the earlier months, the child may grow to resemble them.”

12. Use These Home Remedies to Avoid A Difficult Birth!


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“Difficult” labor was often fatal labor well into the 19th and 20th centuries, and still is in some parts of the world. To help women along before the advent of the C-section, the epidural, and the Ventouse, or even forceps, chloroform, and doctors who washed their hands, midwives had a number of tricks. According to the Trotula, a manual of women’s health of the 11th century, a woman in a difficult or not-progressing labor should be given an herbal bath, her “sides, belly, hips, and vagina be anointed with oil of violets or rose oil,” and rubbed vigorously; she should be encouraged to sneeze, usually with the judicious application of pepper, or taken on a slow walk through the house (that one is actually helpful). If that didn’t help, then there was always the good old tying a snakeskin around your hips or eating some butter with special, baby-producing words carved into it. Obviously, medieval birthing was a horrible crapshoot.
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If you've given birth, what's the silliest advice you received? I've found people cannot resist telling cat-owning pregnant ladies that their feline companion is a toxoplasmosis-carrying assassin.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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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.

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