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Why Our Calendars Skipped 11 Days in 1752

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Thinkstock/Bryan Dugan

Six and a half million Britons went to bed on September 2, 1752, and woke up on September 14. The reason? The Calendar (New Style) Act of 1750, of course.

Now, your average Brit had as much knowledge of Parliament then as we do of day-to-day life in the 1750s, so this might need a little unpacking. You see, it’s all to do with calendars—the way we tabulate time—and how Britain fell out of sync with the world, and felt the need to catch back up. And what’s more, it goes back 170 years prior to 1752.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII was 10 years into his reign as leader of the Catholic church. He had a problem with Easter. The Julian calendar that the church (and large swaths of the world) used at the time measured a year as 365 days and 6 hours long.

That’s close, but not quite right. The average length of a year is 365 days, 5 hours and 49 minutes. The 11 minutes difference might not seem like all that much, but compounded over 1300 years, it begins to add up. So on February 24, 1582, Pope Gregory XIII released a papal bull—a declaration from the leader of the Catholic church—decreeing that those under the dominionship of his church would have to skip some days. Spain, large parts of Italy (which was not yet unified), the Netherlands, France, Portugal, Luxembourg, and Poland and Lithuania (who were at the time tied under a commonwealth) all adopted Gregory’s bull that year.

Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Hungary, and Prussia all followed in the next 50 years, so that large parts of Europe were now ticking off days on their shiny new Gregorian calendars.

Land of Hope and Glory

Britain (England until 1707) was a holdout. It had a large empire, and enough power to feel like it didn’t immediately need to cop to the Catholic calendar (bear in mind, too, that when Gregory made his switch, England’s church was only 50 years out from a nasty split with the Catholic church). But it all got rather confusing: People often headed up letters they wrote with two dates—one using the new Gregorian calendar in fashion in mainland Europe, and the other using the old-fashioned Julian calendar.

Eventually, Britain capitulated and instigated its Calendar (New Style) Act of 1750. Within the legislation, the government admitted that the old-style calendar had caused “divers inconveniences, not only as it differs from the usage of neighbouring nations, but also from the legal method of computation in Scotland, and from the common usage throughout the whole kingdom, and thereby frequent mistakes are occasioned in the dates of deeds and other writings, and disputes arise therefrom.

“In and throughout all his Majesty’s dominions and countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, belonging or subject to the crown of Great Britain,” the act continued, “the second day of September in the said year one thousand seven hundred and fifty-two inclusive; and that the natural day next immediately following the said second day of September shall be called, reckoned, and accounted to be the fourteenth day of September, omitting for that time only the eleven intermediate nominal days of the common calendar.”

The Final Holdouts

And so, with that act of Parliament, Britain (and its colonies) joined most of the rest of Europe in using the Gregorian calendar. September 3 through September 13 were skipped altogether for 1752, and life went on. Despite what some people say, there was little backlash from the public.

Britain wasn’t the last holdout for the new form of calendar, either—not by a long shot. Russia didn’t change over until 1918. Greece refused to switch until 1923. By then the synchronisation had become so bad that the two countries needed to skip 13 days, rather than 11. It’s one of the only ways that people can skip forward in time until we invent the time machine.

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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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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