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New York Public Library

10 Lifehacks from 100 Years Ago

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New York Public Library

In the late 1880s, cigarette manufacturers began inserting stiffening cards into their paper packs of cigarettes to strengthen the containers. It wasn't long before they got the idea to put artwork, trivia, famous people, and pretty girls onto those cards, grouped into collectible series. The cards, which continued into the 1940s, are highly valuable now, with the most expensive (bearing the face of stringent anti-smoking baseball player Honus Wagner) selling for $2.8 million in 2007.

In the 1910s, Gallaher Ltd of Belfast & London and Ogden's Branch of the Imperial Tobacco Co printed "How-To" series, with clever hints for both everyday and emergency situations. From steaming out a splinter to stopping a mad dog, these cigarette cards told you the smart way to handle many of life's problems.

(Please note these cards were published a hundred years ago, when safety was not as popular a pursuit as it is now. For that reason, we can't recommend trying any of these, as brilliant as they may be.)

1. How to make a fire extinguisher

 1643054. New York Public Library

"Dissolve one pound of salt and half a pound of sal-ammoniac in two quarts of water and bottle the liquor in thin glass bottles holding about a quart each. Should a fire break out, dash one or more of the bottles into the flames, and any serious outbreak will probably be averted."

2. How to extract a splinter

 1643068. New York Public Library

"Fill a wide mouthed bottle with hot water nearly to the brim, and press affected part of hand tightly against mouth of bottle. The suction will pull down the flesh, and steam will soon draw out the splinter."

3. How to preserve eggs

 1643210. New York Public Library

"Eggs for preserving must be newly laid, and by simply putting these into a box or tin of dry salt-burying the eggs right in the salt and keeping it in a cool dry place — it is possible to preserve them for a very long period. No air whatever should be allowed to get to the shell."

4. How to fell a tree

 1135982. New York Public Library

"Having decided which side you wish the tree to fall, cut alternatively a downward and inward cut as shown. When about half through, proceed to cut the other side a few inches higher, and finally pull tree down by means of ropes."

5. How to stop a mad dog

 1135951. New York Public Library

"A scout's staff, a walking-stick, or even a handkerchief or hat may be held before you as shown. The dog invariably endeavours to paw down your defense before biting, thus giving you the opportunity of disabling him by a kick."

6. How to keep plants watered while away on holiday

 1641614. New York Public Library

"Fill a large pail with water, and stand it a little above the level of the plants and group round or near as many plants as practical. Loosely plait two or three strands of wool together, immerse completely in water, and place one end in the pail, weighted, and touching the bottom. Rest the other end on the soil: a separate plait of wool is advisable for each pot."

7. How to light a match in the wind

 1643152. New York Public Library

"The familiar difficulty of lighting a match in a wind can be to a great extent overcome if thin shavings are first cut on the match towards its striking end, as shown in the picture. On lighting the match the curled strips catch fire at once; the flame is stronger and has a better chance."

8. How to make a chair to cross a stream

 1136339. New York Public Library

"Fasten a strong rope to a tree and let a boy swim across the stream and fasten the other end to a tree on an opposite bank. Make the chair, fasten it to a running loop or a block pulley, and by means of a light rope fastened to the middle of (the) chair and held by a scout at each end, those unable to swim are safely passed over."

9. How to rescue someone from electric shock

 1136376. New York Public Library

"In rescuing a person touched by a "live wire" do not attempt to take hold of him if he is still grasping the wire, unless your hands are protected by rubber gloves, a water-proof coat, or several thicknesses of dry cloth. Stand on glass or dry wood, and try and have (the) current switched off, and send at once for a doctor."

10. How to make a water filter

 1135849. New York Public Library

"A most handy and efficacious filter can be made out of an ordinary perfectly clean zinc water pail, through the bottom of which a hole has been drilled and a small pipe fitted. The water percolates through the layers of fine and coarse sand, and clean picked gravel and stones, with which the pail is filled, filtering through to the bottom in a clear state."

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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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]

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