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6 Beach Reads From 100 Years Ago

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Most of the old books that you encounter today are official “classics,” meaning that though they were written centuries ago, they carry some lasting beauty, some deep human truth that transpires age. And many of them are painfully dry—you only read them because you want to be able to say, “I felt Hugo expressed more pathos for the French underclasses in Les Miserables than in The Hunchback of Notre Dame” at parties. (And you will remember to pronounce “Dame” as “Dahm.”)

But don’t forget, people of 100 years ago didn’t like to be bored any more than you do! They might have had longer attention spans, but they still liked to devote those attention spans to something fun. Mysteries, thrillers, romances, and fantasy abounded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We’ve just forgotten about them because not enough English professors write dissertations about crime-fighting ladies of the Edwardian Age.

So here we present some forgotten, fun reads of the past. Not only are they free on Google Books (except the naughty ones at the bottom!), they’re also mostly free of the bloated language and conventions that put so many readers off old fiction.

1. The Lamplighter, 1854

Genre: Chick-Lit Romance

If you’re in the mood for pure heart rending/warming sentiment, meet little Gertie Flint. She’s a poor orphan, mistreated by the world, until she is rescued by a kindly lamplighter. His fatherly love changes the course of her life. The rest of Maria Susanna Cummins’ bestselling novel is a chance for Gertie to show us how bright, hard-working, and good a young woman can be; and the sweet romantic rewards that await a girl of such virtue.

2. The Hannay Series, 1915

Genre: Espionage Thrillers

You’ve probably heard of the movie(s) The Thirty-nine Steps, as Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock were two of many talented people who’ve brought versions of it to radio and screen. What you may not have known is that it is the first book in a five book series of thrillers staring the intrepid Richard Hannay, solider and spy of The Great War. The books were written by Scottish novelist (and Baron, Elected Member of Parliament, and Governor General of Canada) John Buchan. They chronicle Hannay’s life of adventure and espionage throughout WWI, as well as much mystery-solving after it.

3. The Marriage of William Ashe, 1905

Genre: Scandal and Romance

William Ashe, the dashing Earl and successful politician, is enchanted with the beauty and charm of 18-year-old Lady Kitty. He proposes after only knowing her three weeks, and is too infatuated with her to take note of all the gossip regarding her character. What could possibly go wrong? Enter a lover or two, some unladylike behavior, a desperate episode of grief, some very wrong choices, and you have yourself a spellbinding beach read by Mrs. Humphrey Ward.

4. Miss Madelyn Mack, Detective, 1914

Genre: Ladies Solving Crimes

Long before spunky modern heroines began solving mysteries with their cats and knitting societies, even before Miss Marple tottered onto the scene, there was Miss Madelyn Mack. She and her trusty companion, reporter Nora Noraker, take on five mysteries in the book, which reads surprisingly non-sexist for the day (and they were written by a man, Hugh Cosgro Weir). Miss Mack believes that a woman’s observant character makes her a better mystery solver than a man. It’s a bit of a Sherlock Holmes rip-off, to be sure, but then again what mystery solving duo isn’t?

5. Carmilla: a Vampyre Tale, 1872

Genre: Vampires

Predating Dracula by about 25 years, Carmilla, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, is the story of a lonely girl named Laura who lives in her father’s lonely European castle. One day a carriage rolls out of the mist, and an anxious lady begs to leave her ill daughter with Laura while she tends to a far-away emergency. This girl is Carmilla, and soon she and Laura have formed an intense friendship. Carmilla has peculiar ways, and an undefinable sickness. Not surprising, since people all over town seem to be dying of some strange illness. I bet you can guess what it is. But in 1872, it would have been quite a shock.

6. You Know Me, Al, 1914

Genre: Humor

Firstly, finding any unique humor from the 19th and early 20th centuries is difficult. You can basically choose from the rambling knee slappers of Mark Twain, or the jaunty verbal gymnastics that come from Jerome K. Jerome and the future members of the Algonquin Round Table. But You Know Me, Al, written by sportswriter Ring Lardner, reads altogether different. It’s a series of letters written to “Al” (in a vernacular that is nearly recognizable English) by Jack Keefe, a remarkably dumb and narcissistic baseball player who continually sabotages or lets others sabotage his journey to and from fame. Throw in some disastrous dames and a coupla no good scoundrels all filtered through Jack’s amazing doltishness, and you’ve found yourself an easy fun time there, pal.

Bonus: 50 Shades of Goodness Gracious!

Erotica has been publicized for as long as man could transfer thought to page or stone. The erotic novel, as we know it today, (slightly more lady-friendly and plot heavy than average pornography) began in the 18th century with the publication of The Memoirs of Fanny Hill. The art form progressed, and by the end of the 19th century readers were enjoying such discreetly wrapped and erotic titles as Lady Bumtickler's Revels, The Autobiography of a Flea, and Venus in India. All books are available on Kindle for remarkably reasonable prices, and will be sure to add a little ribaldry to your summer.   

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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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