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Which Country Has the Best-Looking People? Let's Ask a 19th-Century Doctor

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We’ve all heard of Emily Post, but how about Robert Tomes? Tomes was a 19th century American physician, diplomat and etiquette writer, who was known for his articles on manners appearing in Harper’s Bazar (before the spelling was Harper’s Bazaar).

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In 1870, he published a book called The Bazar Book of Decorum. The Care of the Person, Manners, Etiquette, and Ceremonials. In it, he gauges the best-looking people of different groups—including the working class and the elderly—in various countries.

The results aren’t pretty. In fact, they’re xenophobic in most instances and condescending all around. Sweeping generalizations about other races seems the opposite of good etiquette.

Here’s what he declares.

1. Americans are better looking than nearly everyone else.

If you’re American, you have been blessed with the ultimate in looks. Everyone thinks so, even non-Americans.

It is common for foreigners to praise our people for their good looks, and the American face is certainly remarkable for its regularity. It seldom presents those extraordinary deviations from the classical ideal so frequently observed in foreigners.

2. If you are German or Irish, you are likely deformed. What a pity.

While Americans’ looks are “remarkable for their regularity,” Germans and the Irish aren’t so lucky.

Those monstrous developments of the features, which are not seldom found in the German or Irish countenance, and approximate it to the various types of the lower animals, are rare among native-born Americans.

Did I mention his wife was from Germany? And that they and their three children lived in Germany for a time? 

3. Even Americans are ugly sometimes!

Americans are a diverse bunch. So, naturally, some of us will be ugly.

As people of all nations come hither, we have, of course, every kind of face. There are, accordingly, all varieties of disproportion and degrees of ugliness to be occasionally seen.

He goes on to talk about ears like “gigantic oysters” and noses like elephant trunks and really stops making sense altogether.

I’d like to reiterate: This guy is a doctor. When a patient came in with a growth, did he simply say: “I’m afraid you have a case of the uglies!”

4. Americans can be ugly in less overt ways as well.

Let’s set aside the outliers and address the more common ways Americans are ugly.

The chief faults of the American person are excessive paleness or yellowness of complexion and thinness of structure.

That’s it? That’s not so bad.

5. Every group thinks they have the best nose.

This may be the one characteristic he doesn’t have a strong opinion on.

There seems to be no absolute standard of nasal beauty.

He mentions Grecians, Ethiopians, Romans, Israelites, and the wife of Genghis Khan (really), and says they all believe they have the best nose, and this is how it should be. It is a rare moment of sanity in the book.

6. English children are more attractive than American children.

Thanks to the unfortunate American climate—and those God-given rosy English complexions!

The American complexion is surpassed in freshness and clearness by the English in youth. Our dry atmosphere is unfavorable both to the color and transparency of the skin.

What’s all this doing in an etiquette book again?

7. Americans become way hotter than the English in old age.

The English become acne-ridden when they’re elderly. (Um, OK.) On the other hand, Americans’ skin changes to perfectly complement our gray hair. Naturally.

In advanced age, however, we have decidedly the advantage. While the English complexion is apt to become pimpled and blowsy, and seems to indicate grossness and overfeeding, the American, with the progress of time ripens to a mellow ruddiness, which harmonizes well with gray hairs, and the veneration which is due to them.

It’s so sad when skin becomes blowsy.

8. The American working class is better looking than the European working class.

This seems to have something to do with the fact that we’re thinner? (Can you imagine this guy’s reaction if he saw us now?)

Compare the peasant face of Europe with that of the working people of this country. The former appears like a mass of dough rolled into a uniform surface; the latter is full of lines, distinct and expressive as those of a steel engraving.

Elsewhere he says thinness and wrinkles are unattractive, so I’m not sure how all this adds up.

9. English women are prettier than American women.

Thinness isn’t as attractive on women in general as it is on the working class at large. (But what about working class women?)

Our dames, although we do not advise them to go to bed nightly on a supper of Stilton cheese and London stout like their English sisters, would, we believe, improve their looks if they lived better. By living better we mean feeding at regular intervals upon well-cooked, nutritious food, instead of wasting their appetites upon cakes, sweets, and other indigestible articles, which fill the stomach, but starve the body.

So American women should eat more, but they should avoid cheese, beer, and sweets? All right, so the latter may be true to some extent, but it sounds like no fun at all.

10. Ancient Greek women dressed the best.

He thinks very highly of ancient Greek women in general.

The Greek woman, with a genuine contour of swelling bosom and rounded limb, was content to cover herself with a simple cloth, which, confident in her graceful proportions, she left to assume the natural lines of her figure.

He praises ancient Greeks later as well for not participating in “ear-boring”—that’s ear-piercing to us—and he can’t stop talking about how beautiful the Venus de Milo is, which makes me wonder: Does he like simple clothing or next-to-no clothing?

11. The women of the Carpathian valleys—or thereabouts—having amazing skin. But don’t be fooled—this has nothing to do with consuming arsenic!

There was a rumor in the 19th century that women of the Carpathian valley, which is an area in Eastern and Central Europe, were exceptionally good-looking. This was credited to the consumption of arsenic.

Ever since a traveler imprudently revealed the fact that some women, of the Carpathian valleys, we believe, secured for themselves beautiful complexions by feeding on arsenic, this practice, it is said, has been more or less generally adopted, not only in Europe, but in this country.

The good doctor suddenly feels compelled to do some extreme hedging, it appears more or less.

Physicians have, moreover, for a long time been in the habit of prescribing, in diseases of the skin, a preparation called “Fowler’s Solution,” the principal constituent of which is arsenic.This remedy is considered an effective one, but its danger is so great that it is given only in the smallest doses.

Fowler’s Solution, which contains one percent arsenic, was once used on everything from eczema to cancer. Dr. Tomes goes on to say, roughly: Don’t use arsenic (even though it will make your skin look great)!

By the by, Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula resides in the Carpathian Mountains, so maybe the youthful looks of the ladies in those valleys had less to do with arsenic and more to do with immortality?

And that gets us to Chapter 3 in this book. If we were to continue, you would encounter such information as:

● Why the ear becomes unattractive. It’s mostly “owing to its neglect in childhood and youth,” which Tomes details in the subsection “The ear—How to make it beautiful.”
● The “cure for fatness!” It involves the sensible suggestion to exercise and avoid “fat-producing” foods, and the not-so-sensible advice of “frequent rubbing of the body with a rough towel or brush, an occasional laxative, alkaline, sea, and vapor baths, with shampooing or kneading of the flesh” to to help you lose weight.
● And sprawling gets its own subsection! Tomes’ take: “It is not customary to sit upon more than one chair at a time.”

So congrats to ancient Greek women and the ladies of the Carpathian valley—you’re the only ones who came out of this unscathed, assuming the latter survived dosing themselves with arsenic.

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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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