CLOSE
Original image
Getty Images

What Is That? 9 Peculiar Artifacts of Yesteryear

Original image
Getty Images

Walk through life with a 6-year-old and you find yourself often answering the question “What was that for?” It's applicable for everything from phone booths (“Is that a TARDIS?”) to cathode TVs (“That TV’s fat.”) to cassette tapes (“Look at all the brown string that comes out!”). It can be depressing. So, let’s let the grownups have a turn. Some of these objects do have modern counterparts. Most serve needs we no longer have, leaving us to ask, what was that used for? 

1. Lawn rollers

Nowadays, most of us have front yards that were cut and leveled by professional developers with heavy equipment. But this wasn’t always so. As people began to build the beautiful old houses that make up our historic neighborhoods, turning the trampled mud and weeds that surrounded them into lush welcoming lawns was their own responsibility. Lawn rollers (above), heavy cement wheels that could be attached to a tractor (or pushed if you were angry at your spinal discs), were best used on lighter, sandy soil that needed help taking seed. The heavy wheel helped smooth out tilled dirt and pack grass seed firmly into it. They reportedly could help keep the grown turf adhered to the dirt, too.

2. Obstetric Phantoms

Catafalques Tumblr

If you look closely, you’ll probably see more than you ever wanted to. There’s a gangly little baby, with yellow pillow placenta, inside a whitish womb, all stored in a small creepy hollowed out torso. Obstetric phantoms have been used for centuries to train doctors and midwives to assist the birth of babies. This 18th century Italian phantom would allow the teacher to manipulate the fetus, whose head you can just see emerging from the phantom’s vagina (best band name ever). This way the instructor could imitate some of the dangerous variables a midwife would encounter and train her students to compensate for them.

3. Hair Receivers  

Etsy

The hair you pull out of your hairbrush, are you throwing it away? Shame on you. Use a hair receiver! From Victorian times to the early 20th century, a lady would put the hair collected from her hairbrush into a lovely pot like this one. The hair could be reused in many ways. Stuffing pillows, pincushions (hair was often more fragrant than now, due to use of oils and perfume in place of washing), and hair ratts. Hair ratts were sewed up, potato-sized bundles of hair that a woman could use to give her hairdos fullness and variety. And you wonder why your hair is so flat and lifeless, Wendy Wasteful.

 

4. Beauty Micrometer

Lela London

Max Factor’s Beauty Micrometer was invented to help movie make-up men pinpoint exactly what was wrong with a starlet’s face. It could be adjusted 325 different ways, and would scientifically reveal how far a face deviated from the perfection of the mean. Even if the imperfections were invisible to the naked eye.

As ridiculous and painful as this thing looked, there likely wasn’t a single starlet in Hollywood who would argue with Max Factor if he told her to put it on. Max Factor figured out in the 1920s how to cook up cosmetics that actually looked good on camera. Until then actors had been using greasepaint. He kept adapting his recipes every time the method of film-making changed, taking into account things like speed of film and heat of lights. So if Max Factor told you to put on a Hellraiser mask so he could pinpoint every flaw on your face, you put on the damn mask.

5. Mortsafe

Wikimedia Commons

Medical science was absolutely booming in the 19th century. The renowned medical schools of the United Kingdom were turning out brilliant doctors, partially due to how often students were able to witness the dissection of actual human cadavers. People didn’t donate their bodies to science back then; in fact ,many believed a body had to be wholly intact to ascend to Heaven. The only legal source of cadavers were the bodies of executed criminals. That was fine until the medical schools got bigger and the pool of crimes punishable by death got smaller. Enter the burgeoning field of grave robbing. Fresh cadavers sold, no questions asked, to medical schools. In parts of Scotland the fear of losing your loved one to science was so great that people began to fortify the graves of the departed. There were many different designs for mortsafes: some were cages, some just heavy rock slabs laid over the grave that could be removed after time, and some were heavy metal coffins, as pictured.   

6. Antimony Cup

Wikimedia Commons

Nothing will clean you out and leave you feeling as refreshed as using a cupful of toxic wine to make yourself violently ill. At least that was the popular notion in the 18th century. The cups were made of antimony, a metal that would react with the acid in wine to produce a purgative. That is to say, every fluid in your digestive tract would race for whichever exit was closest.

This was considered fine medicine, unless the wine used had too high of an acid content. Then it was considered accidental death by poisoning. Families would often pass down their Antimony Cups through the generations, a general curative for countless ailments.  As awful as this is, it could be considered superior to use of the Antimony Pill, which when swallowed would have the same effect. The metal pill itself would travel undigested and unchanged through the digestive tract, where it was retrieved … and reused. Over and over again. They called it “The Everlasting Pill.”

7. Perforation Paddle

Smithsonian

Your mind, like my own, perhaps goes to a dark place at the sight of this. Fear not. The only backside this paddle was used on was that of the highly deserving Yellow Fever. The Board of Health in Montgomery, Alabama used this paddle in 1899 to poke holes in the mail. This was to prepare it for effective fumigation, hoping to stop the spread of the disease. The people of the era weren’t sure how Yellow Fever was transmitted (mosquito bites), so they tried to contain outbreaks by any means possible. It was useless, but you have to admire their determination and ingenuity.

8. Wooden Leper Clappers

Zygoma Tumblr

Biblical lepers were required by law to stay away from The Normies, but should they have to come near to civilization, they were to cry out, “UNCLEAN! UNCLEAN!” to announce their approach. Things were more civilized by the 17th century, when lepers could save their voices and just rattle clappers like these (which are actually replicas) to announce their miserable presence. Some historians believe the clappers were also a sound associated with the most desperate of beggars, and helped lepers in their daily fight for the charity that sustained them.

9. Dummy Tanks

Wikimedia Commons

If you looked closely, you’d see a weird wooden jungle gym covered in green tarp. But if you were doing a flyover re-con mission, you would see a fortified line containing many more tanks than you thought your enemy possessed. So many you might even divert your planned attack to the route your enemy wanted you to go in the first place.  Decoy tanks were first used to deceive and intimidate enemies in WWI by Allied forces, and by both sides in WWII (inflatable tanks were popular during that time).  Some sources indicate the US Army still use decoy tanks that replicate M1s, right down to their infrared heat signature. 

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
entertainment
arrow
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES