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6 Terrifying Bedtime Stories That Kept Kids in Line

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ProjectGutenberg.org

Long before Edward Gorey offed children alphabetically, writers sought to instill good manners and exemplary behavior through strange, scary cautionary tales. Some stories were so bizarre it's a wonder the kids that read them turned out okay. Here are a few of our favorites.

1. “The Story of Little Suck-A-Thumb”

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Der Struwwelpeter, penned by German psychiatrist Heinrich Hoffmann and released in Germany in 1845, is full of tales of children misbehaving—and the awful, bizarre fates they suffered for doing so. Augustus doesn’t eat his soup, and so he wastes away and dies. Harriet plays with matches and sets herself on fire. But none is stranger or more terrifying than the tale of poor Conrad, also known as Suck-a-Thumb:

One day, Mamma said: "Conrad dear,
I must go out and leave you here.
But mind now, Conrad, what I say,
Don't suck your thumb while I'm away.
The great tall tailor always comes
To little boys that suck their thumbs,
And ere they dream what he's about.
He takes his great sharp scissors out
And cuts their thumbs clean off, and then,
You know, they never grow again."

When Conrad sucks his thumb again, he is visited by the tailor, who chases the boy with a giant pair of scissors and cuts off both of his thumbs. Gruesome—and, if Der Struwwelpeter’s sales are any indication, perhaps an effective teaching tool for parents: By 1876, over 100 editions had been printed.

2. “The Cry Baby”

Image courtesy The Haunted Closet.

This story is another Hoffmann specialty, from the book Slovenly Betsy, which was published in 1911 specifically for American audiences. A mother cautions her daughter not to cry so much, but the girl doesn’t listen—and eventually, she cries her eyes out:

And now the poor creature is cautiously crawling
And feeling her way all around;
And now from their sockets her eyeballs are falling;
See, there they are down on the ground.
My children, from such an example take warning,
And happily live while you may;
And say to yourselves, when you rise in the morning,
"I'll try to be cheerful today."

That’s not the only horrifying tale in Slovenly Betsy, which will be re-released this July. There’s also the story about Polly, who plays with the boys even after she’s told not to—so of course her leg is severed while roughhousing. And proud Phoebe Ann holds her head up so high that her neck stretches freakishly, and she has to cart her noggin around on a wagon.

3. “The Tom-Boy Who Was Changed Into A Real Boy.”

The title of this story—from the book Little Miss Consequence, published in 1880—is self-explanatory: A little girl (the daughter of an Earl) loves playing with the boys so much that, eventually, she becomes a boy.

At last she grew so coarse,
E’en her voice was rough and hoarse,
And her attitudes became so like a boy’s, boy’s, boy’s,
That they thought it only right,
On a certain Summer’s night,
To change her sex completely, without noise, noise, noise.

After her transformation, the unfortunate girl is literally shipped off—a boat's captain is paid to take her on as a sailor. “And a caution may it prove to you and me, me, me!”

4. “Le Petit Chaperon Rouge” (“Little Red Riding Hood”)

In later versions of French writer Charles Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood”—published in 1697 as part of his book, Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals. Tales of Mother Goose—Little Red and her grandmother are rescued from the belly of the wolf by a woodcutter. Not so in the original, where the wolf devours them both, permanently. “Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf,” Perrault writes. “I say ‘wolf,’ but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.”

5. “Max and Moritz”


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The seven tales of these badly behaved boys, written and illustrated by German Wilhelm Busch in 1865, begin with the duo tying bread crusts together with thread and laying a trap for a widow’s chickens. When the birds eat the crusts and swallow the intertwined strings, they panic and eventually become fatally entangled. The widow cooks the chickens, but Max and Moritz steal them with a fishing pole. They similarly terrorize a tailor, a teacher, their uncle, a baker, and farmer Bauer Mecke. When Mecke notices that the boys have slit open his bags of grain, he puts the boys in the bags instead, and sends the bag through a mill, grinding them to bits. “Here you see the bits post mortem/Just as Fate was please to sort ‘em,” Busch writes. Their bits are eaten by ducks, and no one is sorry to see the boys go.

6. “Rebecca, Who Slammed Doors for Fun and Perished Miserably.”

Published in 1907, Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children: Designed for the Admonition of Children between the ages of eight and fourteen years is technically a parody of 19th century cautionary tales. Satire or not, it’s still full of stories that should give naughty children pause—including “Rebecca,” who Belloc writes “was not really bad at heart, but only rude and wild: she was an aggravating child …” One day, to frighten her uncle, Rebecca slammed a door that had a marble bust above it; the bust fell, and “laid her out.” Her funeral sermon “showed the dreadful end of one who goes and slams the door for Fun.”

There’s also “Jim: Who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a Lion,” "Henry King: Who chewed bits of string, and was early cut off in Dreadful agonies,” and “Matilda: Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death."

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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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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