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9 Old-School Holiday Decorations

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How many of these decorative touches do you remember (or still have stashed in the attic)?

1. READER'S DIGEST CHRISTMAS TREES

Old issues of Reader’s Digest are the Tribbles of the magazine world; left alone on a shelf or in a box they just seem to multiply on their own. This readily available supply of paper made for an inexpensive and time-consuming craft project that kept kids busy enough to give their teacher a breather for an hour or so. By laboriously double-folding each page of the magazine into an isosceles triangle, then gluing the front and back covers together, you could create a small, table-top Christmas tree. Then the real fun began: the decorating. With no restrictions on the amount of spray paint and glitter that could be used, the end result sometimes seemed reflective enough to deflect laser beams.

2. IBM WREATHS

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Remember the early days of computing, when we saved data on floppy disks? Those old dinosaurs were positively futuristic compared to the standard storage medium of the 1950s—punch cards. Regularly (and generically) referred to as “IBM cards,” they were often disposed of most carelessly, despite the sensitive information they contained. (Of course, back then not many average folks had access to a UNIVAC, so identity theft was not a major consideration.)

Used IBM cards were plentiful (and free) in the 1960s and '70s, so fashioning Christmas wreathes out of them helped to keep tons of paper out of landfills. Cynical types at the time were able to find a deeper meaning in such decorations, such as encroaching faceless technology replacing traditional warm holiday cheer, but most of us just enjoyed transforming someone’s free discards into a pretty floral spray.

3. GOD'S EYES

These colored yarn decorations were fairly easy and fun to make, and were frequently an art class school project. Of course, before you could actually start wrapping your sticks in earnest, you always had to first sit through a brief history lesson on the Ojo de Dios and its spiritual connotations in Mexico. Kids still make a variation of these in school and Cub Scouts today, but odds are they don’t use the same type of sticks to construct them as those that were handed out back in the day—pointy wooden skewers that could take an eye out quicker than a Red Ryder BB gun. In some regions, those short wooden lances were called “city chicken sticks,” as they were primarily sold for the purpose of concocting this Midwestern delicacy. As such, and out of necessity, they were sharp enough to easily pierce through large chunks of pork and veal, and God’s eyes never failed to stab you in the hand when unpacking the boxes of Christmas decorations every year.

4. C6 CHRISTMAS LIGHTS

Decorative electric lights have been available since the 1880s, but for many years they were so expensive that they were only seen on trees in wealthy homes and/or town squares. General Electric debuted the C6 ("C" for “conical” and "6" to indicate the diameter of the bulb) tungsten filament straight fluted lamps in 1924. Mass-produced in a variety of colors and popularly priced, the C6 became the de facto holiday decor for both indoor and outdoor use until it went out of production in the mid-1970s. The C6 had its drawbacks, however; the lights worked on a series circuit, meaning if one bulb burned out, the whole string went dark. In many homes, parents uttering a few curse words while going bulb by bulb down a line of darkened lights with increasing frustration, trying to find the faulty one, was as much of a holiday tradition as hanging stockings by the chimney with care.

5. ALUMINUM TREES

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Who would’ve thought that the “space-age” tree of the 1960s that sold for pennies on the dollar at garage sales in the '70s and '80s would become a pricey collectible in the 21st century? The first aluminum Christmas trees were manufactured in 1959 and were not branded as “artificial” trees, but rather “permanent” ones. Busy families didn’t have to worry about hauling a live tree home from the lot and sweeping up fallen needles on New Year’s Day, and assembling the silvery wonder was a group activity that was fun for the whole family. Since electric lights presented a shock hazard on a metal tree, the twinkling color effect was accomplished instead by a rotating color wheel.

6. WINDOW STENCILS

With the magic of Glass Wax, you too could make your home a Window Wonderland—just like the fancy department stores downtown! Those stores, of course, had professional window cleaners to polish the stuff off when the holidays were over. Most parents weren't quite so lucky.

7. MELTED PLASTIC POPCORN DECORATIONS

Properly called “Glitter Plaques,” these holiday decorations were made for over 50 years by the Kage Company of Manchester, Connecticut. The decorative application for the polyethylene pellets came about quite by accident (their official use was to make PE envelopes for bank passbooks and other important documents). The company founder’s daughter was home sick from school one day in the 1950s and started playing with the boxes of colored PE pellets her dad had left at home. She made a chicken shape, baked it on a cookie sheet, and—voilà—a new product line was born. The plaques were sold at W.T. Grant and Woolworth stores throughout the 1960s and '70s and were also popular fundraising items for the Boy and Girl Scouts. Sales eventually dwindled to the point where Kage ceased production of the plaques in 2008.

8. CERAMIC TREES 

The Atlantic Mold Company patented its A-64 Christmas tree mold in 1958 and went on to sell thousands of copies to ceramic shops across the country. Their sales peak was in the 1970s, when ceramics classes were all the rage. Atlantic molds tended to last for more casts than other brands, and the A-64 was the only tree mold that automatically made the topmost hole.

9. SHINY BRITE ORNAMENTS

My So Called Crafty Life

The original Shiny Brite glass ornaments were handmade in Germany and imported by Max Eckardt & Sons in New York beginning in 1920. When World War II was on the horizon, Eckardt sensed that importing glass from Europe would be problematic, so he partnered with Corning Glass to mass produce the decorations. Corning used a modified version of the machine that had previously made glass light bulbs to blow the glass balls and then a separate machine “silvered” them (inside and outside, for extra shine) and then lacquered them. When the War caused silver shortages, the plain glass balls were instead painted with pastel colors. Eckardt stopped producing glass ornaments by the 1970s and sold the Shiny Brite name in 1974.

An earlier version of this post appeared in 2013.

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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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