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15 Beautiful Objects We Don’t Use Anymore

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The beauty of an object can’t guarantee its usefulness. Some of these beauties were left behind by improved technology or changing fashions. Some were odd novelties that were hardly even used in their own day. But all are exquisite samples of the culture they existed in.

1. Strawberry Grabbers via Pinterest

A fancy little silver pincher made by Tiffany around 1900. They fit like little gloves on your fingers, to protect your fingertips from the dangers of picking strawberries out of a bowl. Can’t imagine why they didn’t become a kitchen staple.

2. Sterling Silver Salt Set

Salt wasn’t always shake-able. In the early part of the 20th century, the Morton Salt Company of Chicago added magnesium carbonate to their salt to make it flow. Before that, salt was clumpy and rough, served in little containers (salt cellars) that you’d pinch your serving out of. Of course, if you were fancy, you’d have something like these silver seashells, with accompanying tiny spoons.

3. Sholes & Glidden Typewriter

Inventors dabbled in trying to create a manageable personal type-set machine for most of the 19th century. It wasn’t until around 1870 that Christopher Latham Sholes invented the little beauty above. The carriage (the part that moves) was operated by a foot pedal, and the paper was placed too high to actually see while typing. Still, a skilled user (with fingers of steel) could type far faster than a person could legibly write, starting the slow decline of handwritten correspondence that continues to this day.

4. Lace Bandeau Brassiere via Pinterest

Just as fashion has forced women to bind and constrict themselves, in the 1920s, it was demanding they let it all hang out. This beautiful bra (30B) offered no support to its wearer. It would, however, allow a woman to achieve the popular narrow rectangle figure of the day by allowing the breasts to sag (as opposed to popping forth as was popular before and after this era) without appearing indecent.

5. 19th Century Vinaigrette via Pinterest

These beauties, carried by delicate people of both sexes, held vinegar-soaked sponges inside. This was because urban living in the 18th and 19th centuries required being able to live amongst unspeakable filth and stench. If you ever felt faint you could hold the vinaigrette up to your nose to block out the offending odors.

6. Pattern Molded Inkwell via Pinterest

You probably know what this was used for. And if you’re a calligrapher or a hipster you might still use one. But it’s rare to encounter one as beautiful as this 1825 example.

7. Chatelaine via Pinterest

Chatelaines were worn around the waist of well-to-do housewives in the middle class, and head housekeepers of the upper classes, in the 19th and early 20th centuries. From the belt chain would hang everything a woman might need in her day, from sewing kits to keys to coin purses. The quality of your or your servant’s chatelaine was an excellent indication of status.

8. Asparagus Tongs

Antiques & Uncommon Treasure

The strawberry grabber might have seemed a little much, but this 19th century French sterling silver asparagus server actually makes some sense. Stabbing each stalk with a fork is so brutish.

9. Denture Minder via Pinterest

We might be stretching the definition of “beautiful” with this circa 1795 French denture holder. But we don’t dare call it anything else. It looks bitey.

10. Praxinoscope-Théatre

Invented in 1877 by Emile Reynaud, the Praxinoscope-Theatre gave the impression you were watching a teeny vaudeville show. It was a predecessor to cartoons, where images moved (juggled, danced) against a static background. Read more here.

11. Bell & Howell Filmo

John Kratz on Flickr

The Filmo 75 dates from 1928, and was designed by the (still existing) film mechanical supply company Bell & Howell to be a portable movie camera suitable for amateur use. It weighed 3 pounds and could “fit in a coat pocket.” To use it you’d wind it like a watch with a permanently attached key that fit into the side of the camera. It cost as much as a car.

12. Victorian Dress-Lifter

Country Living

Skirts were huge and streets were disgusting in the Victorian Age. Plus there were all sorts of stairs a lady would have to climb. So she’d have to lift her skirt a bit, and these devices helped make it charmingly complicated to do so. The tongs were connected to the hem, the loop at top connected to a belt (or chatelaine). There was a pulley system involved where the lady would pull one end of the chain to lift the skirt. How this was superior to simply lifting your skirt with your hands, only a Victorian would know.

13. Odhner Pinwheel Calculator

The Odhner Calculator was invented Willgodt T. Odhner in St. Peterburg, Russia, in 1874. It was used in Russia for nearly a century. How it was used is … better explained by someone else.

14. Bathing Houses

Wikimedia Commons

Not to be confused with bath-houses, bathing houses (or bathing machines) were simply dressing rooms on wheels. Victorians of a certain class would never stomp around a public beach in their revealing swimwear, so they used these carriages. They changed inside, and then were wheeled directly to water for disembarkation. After swimming they were able to quickly hide back inside and change again.

15. Lancaster Watch Camera


Made in 1886, the watch camera was an excellent way to take covert pictures. It looked like an ordinary pocket watch until the tab was turned. Then the camera shot out, immediately taking a photograph. Though clever, the camera didn’t take great pictures and was only in circulation for four years.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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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.