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Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Swift Were Fart Joke Masters

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Benjamin Franklin was many things: printer, inventor, postmaster, turkey-zapper, constitution-signer, and connoisseur of fart jokes.

The founding father fancied flatus. So much, actually, that in 1781 he penned an essay dedicated to the thunder down under.

Franklin lived in Paris at the time, serving as US Ambassador to France. There, he heard that the Royal Academy at Brussels was requesting scientific essays and would award prizes for the best papers. The news annoyed Franklin. He thought scientists were falling out of touch with reality. Year after year, they churned out pompous papers that didn’t make life better for the common man. Science should be practical, Franklin thought. Science should help everyday problems. Science should, you know, make farts smell good.

To the Royal Academy…

So Franklin wrote a mock letter, "To the Royal Academy,” which opened explaining why people try to restrain and contain their windy emissions:

"It is universally well known, That in digesting our common Food, there is created or produced in the Bowels of human Creatures, a great Quantity of Wind. That the permitting this Air to escape and mix with the Atmosphere, is usually offensive to the Company, from the fetid Smell that accompanies it. That all well-bred People therefore, to avoid giving such Offence, forcibly restrain the Efforts of Nature to discharge that Wind.

Franklin argued that holding back gas could be painful, even life threatening. If science could improve the smell, maybe people would break wind freely:

“Were it not for the odiously offensive Smell accompanying such Escapes, polite People would probably be under no more Restraint in discharging such Wind in Company, than they are in spitting, or in blowing their Noses.”

Franklin urges the academy to “Discover some Drug wholesome & not disagreeable, to be mix’d with our common Food, or Sauces, that shall render the natural Discharges of Wind from our Bodies, not only inoffensive, but agreable as Perfumes.”

Because who needs cologne when your air biscuit freshens the room with the aroma of blooming daisies?

An Idea Worth a FART-hing

Franklin’s letter was a joke, of course. He never sent it to the academy. Instead, he mailed it to Richard Price, a British philosopher and friend of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. Price was a member of London’s Royal Society, and he would’ve appreciated Franklin’s jab at academia, especially its closing. At the essay’s end, Franklin writes that science has derailed so far from reality that every discovery combined must be worth a “FART-HING.”

(In case you’re wondering, fragrant flatulence probably isn’t possible. When you smell a flatus, you’re actually catching a whiff of hydrogen sulfide and methanethiol. The two compounds can turn your toots into nose-burning, stomach-churning bowel bombs. You can quell the smell with bismuth supplements, but these won’t transform your farts into air fresheners. They’ll just knock your stinkers scentless.)

Jonathan Swift: Master of the Gasser

Franklin wasn’t the only believer in the art of the fart. Sixty years earlier, Jonathan Swift—a master of satire and author of Gulliver’s Travels—wrote an essay titled “The Benefit of Farting Explain’d,” published in a pamphlet in 1722.

The paper’s title page is peppered with puns. Swift hides under the pseudonym “Don Fartinhando Puff-Indorst, Professor of Bumbast at the University of Craccow.” The essay is “translated into English at the Request and for the Use of the Lady Damp-Fart, of Her-fart-shire” by “Obadiah Fizle, Groom of the Stool to the Princess of Arse-Mini in Sardinia.” Oh, and it was also reviewed by a “College of Fizz-icians.”

Seriously. We can’t make this up.

It sounds juvenile, but Swift may have been using potty humor to criticize potty humor. By the 18th century, flatulence had become taboo. Farting was rude, and gas-passing was merely raw material for crude jokes (and in some cases, subject to censorship law.) But it hadn’t always been that way—farts had a proud literary history. For centuries, authors had used scatology as a serious symbol for mortality, decay, and impurity. Dante, St. Augustine, Chaucer, Marlowe, Dryden, and even Martin Luther wrote about cutting the cheese, using flatulence as a literary symbol and even a political tool.

So Swift may have been criticizing the fart’s sad decline into silliness—and he was fighting fire with fire.

Inside “The Benefits”

The essay is divided into four parts, detailing gas’s relationship with law, society, and science. The second section, however, may be the most inventive: After clarifying the nature, essence, and definition of the common fart, Swift explains why it’s bad to bottle up your tailwind—and offers a (sexist) theory to one of life’s mysteries:

“I shall next enquire into the ill consequence of suppressing [gas], which . . . causes Cholicks, hystericks, rumblings, belching, spleen, etc, but in the women of a more strong constitution, it vents itself intirely in talkativeness; hence we have a reason, why women are more talkative than men.”

Swift says it’s better to let one rip than hold it inside. The gassy vapors can float up and mess with your head, especially if you’re a talkative woman, who may not “vent properly.” Swift theorizes that’s why people cry, too:

“If this vapour, when rais’d to the head, is there condensed by a cold melancholy constitution, it distills thor’ the Eyes in Form of Tears.”

He captures his thesis with the nugget: “Whoth stop’t at one end, burst out."

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technology
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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Weird
Creative Bar Owners in India Build Maze to Skirt New Liquor Laws
June 20, 2017
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Facing a complicated legal maze, a bar in the southern Indian state of Kerala decided to construct a real one to stay in business, according to The Times of India. Aiswarya Bar, a watering hole that sits around 500 feet from a national highway, was threatened in 2016 after India's Supreme Court banned alcohol sales within 1640 feet of state and country-wide expressways to curb drunk driving. Instead of moving or ceasing operation, Aiswarya Bar's proprietors got creative: They used prefabricated concrete to construct a convoluted pathway outside the entrance, which more than tripled the distance from car to bar.

Aiswarya Bar's unorthodox solution technically adhered to the law, so members of the State Excise Administration—which regulates commodities including alcohol—initially seemed to accept the plan.

"We do [not] measure the aerial distance but only the walking distance," a representative told The Times of India. "However, they will be fined for altering the entrance."

Follow-up reports, though, indicate that the bar isn't in the clear quite yet. Other officials reportedly want to measure the distance between the bar and the highway, and not the length of the road to the bar itself.

Amid all the bureaucratic drama, Aiswarya Bar has gained global fame for both metaphorically and literally circumnavigating the law. But as a whole, liquor-serving establishments in India are facing tough times: As Quartz reports, the alcohol ban—which ordered bars, hotels, and pubs along highways to cancel their liquor licenses by April 1, 2017—has resulted in heavy financial losses, and the estimated loss of over 1 million jobs. Aiswarya Bar's owner, who until recently operated as many as nine local bars, is just one of many afflicted entrepreneurs.

Some state governments, which receive a large portion of their total revenue from liquor sales, are now attempting to downgrade the status of their state and national highways. To continue selling liquor in roadside establishments, they're rechristening thoroughfares as "urban roads," "district roads," and "local authority roads." So far, the jury's still out on whether Kerala—the notoriously heavy-drinking state in which Aiswarya Bar is located—will become one of them.

[h/t The Times of India]

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