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5 How-To Manuals from the Middle Ages

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Wikimedia Commons

From dying to being a king, these manuals had people in the Middle Ages covered.

1. How to Die Well

The Middle Ages was a good time to learn how to die. If you avoided the Black Plague and survived the 100 Years War, you still might get some of your disease-laden drinking water on a hangnail and die of septicemia. It was during this time that an instructional pamphlet, Ars Moriendi: The Craft of Dying (top photo), started making its rounds among the population of Europe. Appearing sometime in the early 1400s, the Ars Moriendi was a small book of six chapters, each one written to help a dying soul and those attending him to ease the passage into death. As the book grew in popularity and became widely translated, a second, shorter version, which had more pictures and less writing, became available.

The book was written with the idea that in a man’s desperate last hours, he becomes a target for Satan like never before. Ars Moriendi teaches how to withstand that battle. As the first chapter says, death need not be feared. In fact, the book gives a “commendation of Death, and the cunning to die well.” Other chapters help a person avoid despair in their final hours, pose questions to be asked of him to make sure his eternal soul is in order, and offer comforting prayers to say by his bedside.

2. How to Battle

Historical Fencing

Gunpowder slowly began having a say in European warfare between the 14th and 16th centuries. Before that, combat (and there was a lot of combat) was sword to sword.

Well, that’s not exactly true. There were swords, both long and short, spears, maces, pole-axes, daggers, messers, bucklers, bows, crossbows, and lances. Not to mention the art of using any of the above while on horseback, wrestling, fighting two against one, shield use, and how (Plate 242) to fight a woman (the man must stand in a pit with a wooden mace, the woman above him with a 5 pound stone tied into her veil. Presumably these instructions were for judicial battles or other organized fighting.) If this seems like a lot to learn, it was. The scribes of the time produced many manuals, largely pictorial, to help soldiers learn their craft. The woodcuts above are from a popular series of books written by Hans Talhoffer.

3. How to Punish Sins

Having your priest give you a private penance for your sins was a new idea in the early Middle Ages. Before then, people confessed their sins publicly, and maybe only once in their lifetime. In the 6th century, Irish monks begin making extremely detailed lists of possible sins, called Penitentials, along with the punishments to pay for committing them. Some of the punishments (fasting for 4 years for fornication with a virgin) are likely the result of muddled translation or a variable definition of “fasting.” Other sins and precise punishments from the Penitential pamphlet Corpus 190 of the Canons of Theodore include:

-He who desires to fornicate (with) himself (i.e., to masturbate) and is not able to do so, he must fast for 40 days or 20 days.
-If he is a boy and does it often, either he is to fast 20 days or one is to whip him.
-Whoever fornicates with another man's wife must fast for 4 years, 2 wandering in grief, 2 (years) more (fasting) during the 40-day periods and 3 days each week.
-Whoever fornicates with an effeminate male or with another man or with an animal must fast for 10 years

4. How to Care for the Sick

Art Bin

The Fasciculus Medicinae was the first illustrated medical manual to be put into print, in the late 1400s. Actually, it wasn’t so much a manual as a bound collection of separate works about medicine and anatomy. The anatomy was, shall we say, very interpretive in some cases, such as The Zodiac Man. Or in the case of The Incised Man, rather scary, giving detailed directions for where it was best to cut and bleed patients for whatever particular ailment they suffered (“Incisions in the two veins behind the ears, on both sides, are useful for improving memory and cleansing the face of pustules, and against all other spots on the face”). The book widely added to medical knowledge, for good or ill, in the Middle Ages, and the woodblock illustrations influenced the art of the period.

5. How to be a King

Only a small fraction of the population of Medieval Europe read or wrote. Because of this, most books either concerned the church, the wealthy, or the nobility. Often all three of these attributes would be found in the same person. One of the most popular genres of “advice books” during this time was called “Mirrors for Princes.” They were often written by noble relatives, respected scholars, or religious leaders to be presented to new nobility as they came to power. These books were meant to instruct young royalty of their duties and their history. Most of these books, alongside records of battles and studies of other monarchies, instruct on the need for piety, benevolence, and the important of a praiseworthy life. A famous exception is the book The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli. Machiavelli taught that it was better to be feared than loved, better to be stingy than generous (so as not to encourage greed in your subjects), and how to avoid contempt and hatred while adhering to the rest of his suggestions. Unlike most Mirrors, Machiavelli’s book is still widely read today.

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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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]

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