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Summer Reading Guide (From 1852)

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Looking for a good summer read? In 1852, the New York Times highlighted the following notable books to get you through the hot months. Due to copyright lapses and fair use laws, all of these are available to read now, so dive in! (SPOILER ALERT: Many of the books are about hating the Pope).

1. 'Claret and Olives' by Angus B. Reach

Summary: Travel dispatches from a wine tour of the South of France make up what is essentially Sideways for the 1800s. Our man Angus goes around France getting drunk, describing soil, and ruminating about what's making the peasant class so darn upset.

Key Passage: "…my respected landlord was far more in his element than at home with his wife. He eat more, drank more, talked more, and laughed more than any two men present. Afterwards he grew tender and sentimental, and professed himself to be an ardent lover of his kind—a proposition which I suspect he afterwards narrowed specially in favor of a most mosquito-ridden lady next to him…But on the morrow, my repeatable entertainer had a bad headache, a yellow visage, and an entire forgetfulness of how he had got home at all."

What the Times said: "...the extremely picturesque and life-like narrative of a tour in the South of France, performed last year in the season of the vintage." They liked it!

[Read the full text of Claret and Olives here.]

2. 'Margaret Cecil, Or, I Can, Because I Ought' by Catherine Douglas Bell (a.k.a. Cousin Kate)

Summary: Part of a series of holier-than-thou morality tales for young women, Margaret Cecil, Or, I Can, Because I Ought, tells the story of Margaret, a chaste girl who achieves chastity through her unrelenting chasteness.

Key Passage: “Margaret went for the Bible, and seated herself upon a chair by the bedside. Before she began to read, Mrs. Cecil offered up a few simple earnest words of prayer, that God, for His dear Son’s sake, would send His Holy Spirit to be with them at that time, to open their hearts to understand and believe His words, and to enable them to submit to His will, whatever it might be. And the mother’s prayer was answered.”

What the Times said: "[A tale] from which the fire of passion and the exaggeration of romance are anxiously excluded.” This is presented as a good thing.

[Read the full text of Margaret Cecil here.]

3. 'A Journey to Iceland and Travels in Sweden and Norway' by Ida Pfeiffer

Summary: Ida Pfeiffer was an Austrian heiress and one of the world's first female explorers. This collection of travel writing covers her journey through the unforgiving cold of Scandinavia.

Key Passage: "Haveniord is surrounded by a most beautiful and picturesque field of lava, which at first swells to a gentle eminence, then sinks again, and finally stretches in one wide plain to the neighboring hills."

What the Times said: "As a partial compensation for maternal neglect, we observe that the Peripatetie dedicates ‘the volume to her children.’"

[Read A Journey to Iceland and Travels in Sweden and Norway in its entirety here.]

4. 'Thorpe, a Quiet English Town, and Human Life Therein' by William Mountford

Summary: Who wants to read a 360-page prose poem about a town and its cordial Presbyterian shenanigans? Billy Mountford has got you covered.

Key Passage: “It is a good, healthy place. As being God’s it is very good, but not quite so good as being man’s. That, I suppose, is the exact truth. Though some of the gentry are very well inclined to the poor at times, such as Christmas, or when there is cholera.”

What the Times said: “A delightful invigorating prose poem…there are few books more specially adapted to summer reading al fresco than this.” The Times really ate this crap up.

[Read Thorpe, a Quite English Town in its entirety here.]

5. 'History of the War of Independence of the United States of America' by Charles Botta

Summary: This book was updated and re-released in 1852 (it was originally published around 43 years prior). It's translated from the original Italian and the author impressively shoehorns Italian nationalism into a history book about the American Revolution.

Key Passage: “America, and especially some parts of it, having been discovered by the genius and intrepidity of Italians, received, at various times, as into a place of asylum, the men whom political or religious disturbances had driven from their own countries in Europe.”

What the Times said: “[Botta’s] authorities were all in a language with which he could scarcely be idiomatically familiar. We may well be surprised that he made so fair a book; and we have to smile occasionally at the speeches, which, after the manner of Flavius Josephus, he puts in the mouths of his heroes.” Basically: It's historically inaccurate, but you gotta love the weirdo for trying.

[Read History of the War of Independence of the United States of America in its entirety here.]

6. 'Letters to the Hon. Roger B. Taney, Chief Justice of the United States' by Kirwan

U of Michigan

Summary: The pseudonymous "Kirwan" rose to fame with a series of letters to a Roman Catholic Bishop. He's back and better than ever with a series of unsolicited notes to the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. If you think he asks Justice Taney questions about law, you are sorely mistaken—Kirwan pretty much just opens up a firehose of anti-Catholic rhetoric.

Key Passage: "My Dear Sir,—Up to this point I have sought to place before you what I consider to be the true character of the Romish Church, of its priests, its ceremonies, its impostures, and sporty And my object in all this is avowed—to demonstrate to you, and to the entire American people, so far as I can arrest their attention, that nothing but evil—unmingled evil—can be expected from the spread of Popery in this land."

What the Times said: "We doubt whether the book will make any converts. The Rev. Doctor’s facts will surely be taken for falsities, and his logic for dogmatism,—the fate of many a better book."

[Read Letters to the Hon. Roger B. Taney in its entirety here.]

7. 'Gaieties and Gravities' by Horace Smith

Summary: Here comes the comedy! Mid-19th century yuckster Horace Smith's collection of essays will have you coughing up blood with laughter (because you probably have tuberculosis). Classic riffs include "My Tea-Kettle," "On Noses," "Miss Hebe Hoggins's Account of a Literary Society in Houndsditch," "On Lips and Kissing," and the side-splitting, "Ugly Women."

Key Passage: From the aforementioned "Ugly Women": "What a blessing for these unhandsome damsels whom we treat still more unhandsomely by our fastidious neglect, that some of us are less squeamish in our tastes, and more impartial in our attentions!"


What the Times said: “A pleasant volume…No reading can be racier.” They must be talking about "My Tea-Kettle."

[Read Gaieties and Gravities in its entirety here.]

8. 'Crimes of the house of Austria against mankind' by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody

Summary: Did somebody say, "beach read"??? This indictment against the Hapsburghs is a real page-turner that will have you hooked, even if you aren't particularly anti-Hapsburgh...yet.

Key Passage: "The ruthless will to destroy their constitutional rights in Charles V.—that can surprise us no longer; that is the inherited spirit, the essence of the family of Hapsburgh."

What the Times Said: "It is of the same class of reading as the 'Lives of the Highwaymen,' or the 'Pirate’s Own Book.'" So, uh, be sure to pick it up if you like those books.

[Read Crimes of the House of Austria Against Mankind in its entirety here.]

9. 'The Confessions of an Attorney' By Samuel Warren, Charles Dickens

Summary: A series of short stories written by a "Gustavas Sharp, ESQ." (thought to be Samuel Warren), with essays on law by Charles Dickens interspersed. Think Perry Mason, but way more highfalutin.

Key Passage: "Caleb Jennings, a shoemaker, cobbler, snob—using the last word in its genuine classical sense, and by no means according to the modern interpretation by which it is held to signify a genteel sneak or pretender—he was anything but that—occupied, some twelve or thirteen years ago, a stall at Watley, which, according to the traditions of the place, had been hereditary in his family for several generations." (The Dickens bits are better.)

What the Times said: "Messrs. Cornish, Lamport & Co., have collected several brilliant Nouvelettes, evidently by one pen, from the English Magazines…They abound in various incident, and do good service in showing up the abuses of the English Common law system." No mention of Dickens.

[Read The Confessions of an Attorney in its entirety here.]

10. 'The Desert Home' by Captain Mayne Reid

Summary: This novel about an English family living in the American desert is a must-read for fans of survivalist fiction and descriptions of the desert written by someone who had probably never been to one (lots of non-indigenous elk here).

Key Passage: "I dropped my rifle, and seized hold of the points, with the intention of extricating myself: but before I could do so, the elk had risen to his feet, and with a powerful jerk of his head tossed me high into the air."

What the Times said: “The story-teller contrives to throw an astonishing degree of interest. The illustrations are appropriate.”

[Read The Desert Home in its entirety here.]

11. 'Tales Illustrating the Passions' by G.P.R. James

Summary: Collected stories about remorse, jealousy, revenge, despair, and hatred from someone who clearly needed to work some shit out.

Key Passage: "I care for, feel for, nothing upon the earth: the past and the future are all one blank, without a sweet memory, without a bright hope. I have left behind me every thing that had any association with past times, and with the future I have nothing to do."

What the Times said: "[The stories] were highly popular some years ago and are certainly not the worst of his numberless writings." Cheer up, G.P.R., that ain't so bad!

[Read Tales Illustrating the Passions in its entirety here.]

12. 'Wheat or Chaff?' by the Rev. J.C. Ryle

Summary: 350 pages of Reverend Ryle asking, "YOU PIOUS ENOUGH, BRO?"

Key Passage: "You attend church perhaps. You go to the Lord’s table. You like good people. You can distinguish between good preaching and bad. You think Popery false, and oppose it warmly. You think Protestantism true, and support it cordially. You subscribe to religious societies. You attend religious meetings. You sometimes read religious books. It is well: it is very well. It is good: it is all very good. It is more than can be said of many. But still this is not a straightforward answer to my question,—Are you wheat, or are you chaff?"

What the Times said: "The author is remarkable for the cogency of his reasoning and earnestness of eloquence. He is terse and epigrammatic in style, and rendered extremely impressive by unmistakable sincerity of purpose. The book must do great good." Kiss his butt all you want, but that's not how you become wheat.

[Read Wheat or Chaff? in its entirety here.]

13. 'My First Visit to Europe: Or, Sketches of Society, Scenery, and Antiquities' by Andrew Dickinson

Summary: Guy does semester abroad, won't shut up about it.

Key Passage: "Although I knew that the Sabbath was not respected in France, I was utterly astounded at the sight of their festivities! Sunday—why, it is their great day of business and amusement, more than any other day! The shops are all open…Alas! poor creatures! they have not the slightest idea of its wickedness."

What the Times said: "Mr. Dickinson travelled abroad without an armory of classic and historic recollections; but he is gifted with a valuable faculty of observation, clear perceptions and much religious feeling. His sketches are graphic and interesting."

[Read My First Visit to Europe in its entirety here.]

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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]