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13 Dining-Related Taboos from Around the World

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Visit different countries, and you're bound to experience cultural differences—especially at the dinner table. Here are some things to help you mind your manners, wherever you're traveling next.

China

1. Chinese tradition believes that long noodles symbolize a long life, so if you're lucky enough to eat a big steaming bowl of long noodles, don't cut them—it symbolizes cutting a long life short.

2. While eating at the table, you should never point your chopsticks at another person.

3. Flipping a cooked fish which is on your plate is a serious no-no. If you do, you're inviting bad luck into your life. The tradition stems from Chinese fisherman rituals. While eating, the fisherman would not turn over the fish because they feared it would cause their boats to capsize on their next trip. Instead, you should pull the flesh from beneath the fish.

Japan

4. While eating at the dinner table in Japan, chopsticks should never be used to pass food between two people. Chopsticks are used to pass bones at funerals after cremation, and by replicating this same gesture at the dinner table, you are both dishonoring a funeral tradition and creating bad luck.

5. Chopsticks have another function for funeral traditions in Japan. In the home, families stick chopsticks vertically into bowls of rice as an offering to the dead. The vertical chopsticks also symbolize incense burned to sacrifice this dead. While this gesture is acceptable in a person’s home, you are never supposed to place chopsticks vertically in a bowl of food at a restaurant since the gesture is believed to put a curse on the restaurant owner. These beliefs are also the same in Chinese and Korean culture.

United Kingdom

6. As a sign of proper manners in the UK, you should always tilt a bowl of soup away from you while you are eating from it. Manners also dictate that you should spoon the soup away from you toward the opposite side of the bowl while you're eating. This is also proper etiquette in the United States.

Korea

7. As a sign of respect in Korea, you should never begin eating at the dinner table until the eldest or most senior person has begun eating.

United States

8. It's illegal to eat watermelon in public parks within Beech Grove, Indiana. The law was created because an abundance of disposed watermelon rinds punctured the trash bags and caused a mess.

9. In Gainesvilla, Georgia, it's illegal to eat fried chicken with anything but your bare hands. In 2009, one resident was arrested as a prank for committing the crime—i.e., eating her fried chicken with a fork—on her 91st birthday. Luckily, it was all a joke played on her by a friend, and the charges were dismissed.

Italy

10. While dining in Italy, you should never ask for extra cheese unless it is offered to you. It’s seen as a challenge of the chef’s cooking abilities.

Tanzania

11. While you might think that it is polite to show up just a few minutes early for a dinner party in America, it is actually rude to show up early for dinner in Tanzania. Guests should always arrive 15 or 20 minutes late for a meal to be polite.

Russia

12. If you finish a bottle of vodka, the empty bottle should always be placed on the ground. Russians believe that placing an empty bottle back on the table causes bad luck.

13. Food should never, ever be licked off of a knife or any other eating utensil. The act is considered rude and a sign of poor manners. Some would even consider you a savage, as it can also be interpreted as a sign of cruelty to lick a utensil that cut through your food.

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technology
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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Health
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.

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