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5 Disturbing Historical Practices You Should Never, Ever Try

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Before you read these "how to" guides for foot binding and hara-kiri, take a moment to feel grateful that you live in the 21st century.

1. Dueling

A proper duel was meant to be a controlled exercise girded with structure and regulations. It was intended to prevent feuds, brawls, and other unnecessary bloodshed. Different cultures and eras had different rules, the most widespread being 1777's Irish Code Duello. Irish men were to keep a copy of it with their pistols, so that "ignorance might never be pleaded."

A duel starts with an insult. (Double points if you insult a lady under the care of the man you will duel with). If no apology is forthcoming, satisfaction is demanded and the duel is on. The Code Duello encourages apologies and reconciliation at almost all stages of the dueling process. Unless you hit someone. You can't apologize for that, you can only give him your cane and allow him to beat you if you want to avoid a duel.

The challenged may choose the weapon, unless the challenger swears he doesn't know how to use that weapon (usually a sword). The seconds, friends accompanying the duelers (primaries), are there to make sure rules are observed and to step in if necessary. They choose the time for the duel, prepare the weapons in sight of each other, and set the exact terms. The challenged chooses where the duel will be; the challenger chooses how far apart they will stand. Duels are not to be conducted at night, indicating a good sleep will help prevent hot headedness. If one man's nerves are unsteady, so that his hand shakes, everyone goes home and tries again tomorrow. After both men have shot an acceptable number of times (it varies depending on the offense) the seconds try to get them to reconcile. Death is not necessarily the objective. A lot depends on the kind of man you are dueling. President Andrew Jackson famously waited for the man who insulted his wife to fire a wild quick shot, which hit Jackson in the chest. Then, instead of deloping (firing into the ground, which although gentlemanly for a person of Jackson's status is forbidden in Code Duello), he took careful aim and shot the helpless man dead. If they can't reconcile, they stand their ground and fire at will.

2. Keelhauling

Bournville Village Trust, Birmingham, England

In the 1850s, a British ship and a French ship were anchored off the coast of the Mediterranean, refilling their water supply from a freshwater stream. A fight started between the two filling teams, as the British claimed the French were washing their clothes upstream, making the water undrinkable for the British. A French sailor struck a British officer, and for this he was keelhauled by his own crew. One of the British sailors recorded a first-hand account of the punishment. The offender was tied to a heavy grate, which itself was tied to two ropes, one on either side of the ship. The man was dropped into the ocean, allowed to sink, and then drug across the hull under the ship. This is what is known as a "keelhaul." The British crew insisted the French stop punishing the man, but the author records that the man "never recovered."

There are two options in a keelhaul. A short rope, which ensures you're shredded by the barnacles under the ship (seriously enough to tear limbs or decapitate), but makes the whole ordeal quicker. Or a long rope, which might spare you the deadly impact of the hull, but increased your chances of drowning.

3. Hara-kiri

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At first, only honored Samurai warriors had the right to engage in the Japanese ritualistic suicide by disembowelment and decapitation called hara-kiri. The first recorded act of ceremonial hara-kiri (or seppuku) came in 1180. It was an honorable form of suicide used to avoid capture, or a more dignified method of execution allowed for warriors who had committed crimes. Hara-kiri fell out of fashion as the years wore on, but was still used plentifully by high-ranking officials after Japan's defeat in World War II. It was, at its height, a respectable and involved ritual. He who was to perform it was fed a lavish dinner, wrote out his death poem, and prepared himself while wearing a special white kimono, all with the attendance of spectators.

Disembowelment is a horrible way to die. Luckily, it wasn't the actual cause of death in traditional seppuku. A man preparing for this ritual had a second, a trusted man who was an excellent swordsman. Or, in cases of capture, a respected warrior would receive the services of an equally respected warrior from the opposing side to act as his second. As soon as the warrior had driven the blade of the tanto, (a short sword with cloth tied around the blade to keep the man who held it from cutting his hand) into his own stomach, and made the traditional left to right cut, his second would decapitate him with the blow of a sword. Eventually some forms of the ritual bypassed the tanto altogether, allowing the second to strike his blow as soon as the doomed man reached for his ceremonial knife.

4. Civil War field amputation

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First of all, if you have yourself a nice bottle of antiseptic, some clean bandages, and some soap, you can really cut down on your required number of field amputations. Unfortunately, the doctors tending the wounded on Civil War battlegrounds did not know this. They had no concept of sterilization, germs, or the need for cleanliness (not that cleanliness was an option on a bloody battlefield). Bones were shattered by the heavy, slow-moving bullets of the day, tearing and infecting the flesh beyond repair. Wounds, even small ones, would turn septic, then gangrenous, and then the only way to save a soldier's life before the infection took over his body was to cut off the offending part.

First, wounded men would be triaged. Those most seriously wounded—shot through the head, belly, or chest—were set aside to die. There was nothing to be done for them. Soldiers wounded in extremities (which most were) still had a fighting chance. The doctor would clean the wound with a much-used but never-really-washed cloth, trying to remove shrapnel, cloth, and bone fragments.

The patient would be chloroformed. A tourniquet would be applied above the cut to control blood loss. Then incisions would be made around the leg, through the skin and muscle, leaving a flap of extra skin to cover the eventual exposed tissue. When the scalpel hit bone, the surgeon would change over to the bone saw, hack through the limb, and toss it on the pile with the rest. His attendants would stanch the severed arteries, binding the wound with horsehair, silk, or cotton threads. The surgeon would close the wound with the extra flap of skin, leaving a hole for drainage. It could be done in 10 minutes by a good surgeon. The patient was then left to survive any number of infections resulting from his unsterilized, unsanitary, but occasionally lifesaving procedure.

5. Foot binding

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There was a time in China when, if you were a good mother, and if you cared about your daughter's future, you would cripple her. Chinese foot binding, the process of folding a girl's foot into a fist shape over the span of her childhood to make an exceptionally tiny foot as an adult, began in the 10th century and was banned in the 20th. Mothers would begin the painful process, folding the toes in toward the bottom of the foot and securing them with bandaging, from the time a little girl was 2 years old. An especially kind mother would begin the process in winter, as cold feet feel less pain. The foot was soaked to soften it, and the nails closely cut to prevent ingrowing. The child's mother would break her toes, (and eventually her arch), and bind them tightly to the sole of the foot. As the girl grew her bandages were removed, the foot cleaned, and then re-bandaged tighter. Bandages were wrapped in a figure "8" that would draw the heel and toes as close together as possible.

The result of this, when the woman reached adulthood, were what looked like tiny little doll feet, on the outside. On the inside, there was (fair warning before you click!) terrible deformation, necrosis, and infection.

Mothers did this because it ensured their daughters a better future. A wife with tiny bound feet was a showpiece. She was elegant and delicate. She could not do labor because of her feet, which separated her from common women.

Communism dealt the final official blow to foot binding, as health and hard work became associated with happiness instead of peasantry.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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