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Library of Congress

7 Jobs We’re Glad are Obsolete

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Library of Congress

Aw. You wanted to be a travel agent when you grew up? Or a fax machine salesman? I’m sorry. Advances march through our world at ever increasing speeds, closing buggy whip factories and menstrual belt distributors right and left. Take comfort that time has also swept away many horrible, dangerous, and stinky occupations. Here are seven jobs in which redundancy is a relief. 

1. River Pig


PriestRiver.gov

At the Lumberjack World Championship (yes, this is a thing and it is awesome), there is a competition called the boom run. It’s a near superhuman performance of speed and balance, where competitors cross a small lake by running across free floating logs. One hundred years ago, there were men who did a much more deadly version of this for a living. Also called River Hogs, River Rats, and Catty-men, these were the guys who drove logs down rivers to saw mills. If the logs jammed, which they did a lot, these men had to run out over the moving logs and use a pike to try and dislodge the dam. It was a ridiculously dangerous job. Nobody was surprised when a river pig died, and work certainly couldn’t be halted on account of it.  From Timber!: The Story of the Lumberjack World Championships: “If a river pig fell between the logs and drowned, his body might not turn up for days. Sometimes his only grave marker was draping his boots on a tree limb overhanging the river.” 

2. Herb Strewer


Wikimedia Commons

I’m not sure we can appreciate how truly foul city life was in past centuries. It is criminal that the men who implemented large scale sewer systems for cities like Paris and London don’t have holy days dedicated to them—days when everyone kneels before their toilets and gives thanks for the lives the pipes beneath have saved, and the unbearable stenches they eradicated. Before them, all you had was the Herb Strewer. And she only worked for royalty. It was the Herb Strewer’s job, from the 16th to early 19th centuries, to walk around wherever royals were going to be, throwing cowslips, lavender, maudeline, and pennyroyal on the ground.  The goal was to thwart the ridiculous stench rising off the Thames, which was mostly made of poop in the olden days. The position of Herb Strewer soon became a decorated one, held by elegant ladies of court. The tradition was discontinued when Queen Victoria, the first monarch to have a functional toilet installed, ascended the throne. 

3. Dog Whipper


NCSU.edu

We’ve all watched enough cartoons to know that the Dog Catcher is the most soulless villain to have ever wielded a giant net at a scruffy canine antihero. But before dog catchers, and the pounds and shelters they work for, there was the Dog Whipper. The Dog Whipper was specifically employed by churches to keep dogs from overrunning the churchyard.  Some of these dogs had followed their families to the service (indoor dogs weren’t really a thing yet); some were strays wondering where the party was and if there was food. A Derbyshire parish records the Dog Whipper was paid 7 pence a year for their services in 1604, a number which had not increased by 1716. The position began to fade in the 19th century, with one of the last recorded Dog Whippers being appointed in 1856. As a bonus, Dog Whippers were often also employed as “Sluggard Wakeners,” and got to use their long-sticked whips to poke the heads of drowsing parishioners.   

4. Mudlark


VictorianLondon.org

Mudlarking hasn’t so much disappeared as it has evolved; it’s gone from the wretched last resort of the starving to a part-time hobby beloved by retirees. Back in the day, mudlark was a name used to describe people, usually children or the elderly, who would scour the shore of the Thames in 18th and 19th century London. They collected anything of saleable value: lost goods, copper, coal, iron, rope, anything that might fall into the river (or in some cases, swiped off a passing barge by an especially daring Mudlark who could swim). Today people enjoy mudlarking the Thames with a metal detector as a pastime, and have been known to uncover amazing finds. Of course it’s not the true mudlarking experience, as today’s scavengers miss out on all the dead carcasses (sometimes human), rotting garbage and sewage of the good old days. 

5. Powder Monkey


Library of Congress

Child labor was often a cruel necessity in a world where there wasn’t enough of anything to go around. Families needed the extra wages more than they needed their kids to have a childhood. A peculiarly adventurous addition to the drudgery of most child labor was the position of Powder Monkey. Unlike most child labor, a 13-year-old boy might convince himself this was something he wanted to do. From the 16th to the 19th centuries, mighty sailing ships were integral to the endless wars that circled the Western world. These ships had cannons, which needed to be resupplied with gunpowder after every fire. Powder Monkeys were chosen because of their speed and smallness. It was their job to keep running powder from the safety of the hold to the artillery behind the gunwale. A lot more exciting than farm work or woolen mills—but then again, farms and mills were less likely to be blown up by Napoleon.  

6. Sin-Eater

The Oddment Emporium

History is full of animal sacrifice, papal indulgences, and ritualistic confessions, all meant to leave a soul without sin. Sin-eaters were living sacrificial lambs, except they didn’t get slaughtered, and sometimes they got beer. In centuries past, these social outcasts performed a dire service to the people of England, Scotland, and Appalachia. They took the sins of the dead or dying onto themselves, leaving a clean soul ready to ascend to Heaven—a soul who, hopefully, would be much less likely to stay around haunting the living. To accomplish this, a piece of food, usually some kind of bread, was placed on the chest of the deceased, often with ale. There it absorbed the evil inside the body, and then was consumed by the Sin-eater. He was paid a small amount for his services, and the plates or bowls he’d used to eat were burned. Sin-eaters were considered an abhorrent necessity, as it was believed each sin they ate added to the corruption of their souls.

7. Gong Farmer


Wikimedia Commons

Proper waste management has done away with so many careers. Take the Gong Farmer. Seems nowadays nobody wants a man to come to their house at night, dig out all the feces under their privy, and carry it to a dump where it can recycled as fertilizer and building materials. But up until the end of the 19th century, these men were in high demand. They were only allowed to work at night (thus the more respectable term of “Night Man”), were liable to get diseases, and sometimes were required to live far, far away from all the non-poop-scoop people. But they were paid quite well (six pence a day during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign! That’s worth working chest deep in unspeakable horror, isn’t it?). To really enjoy the experience of the Gong Farmer, I recommend you go here, and have some fun catching poo in a basket. Watch out for the wee!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

501069-OpeningCeremony2.jpg

Opening Ceremony

To this:

501069-OpeningCeremony3.jpg

Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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