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"I hate makeup, but my friend says I should glam up every day."

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DEAR A.J.,

I hate makeup, so most days I go au naturel, but my best friend says I'm lazy and should glam up every day.

— DANIELLE, NEW YORK CITY

Danielle, I think you should tell your best friend to shut her raspberry-glacé-decorated trap. Dolling up is your decision. But when you do wear makeup, be thankful that you don’t have to primp and preen the way people did in centuries past. Throughout history, beauty has been an ugly business.

Humans have smeared pretty much any animal part you can think of on their faces in the name of beauty. In ancient Rome, crocodile and swan fat were used as wrinkle removers. A type of whale feces called ambergris was found in perfumes until remarkably recently. Queen Nefertiti of Egypt allegedly used blood as fingernail polish.

Not repulsed enough?

Allow me to recommend the most popular skin cleanser of 1600s England: puppy urine. Geishas in Japan massaged their skin with a cream made of nightingale excrement. If you were a married woman, on the other hand, you generally blackened your teeth with dye made from iron filings.

Oftentimes, if your makeup wasn’t making you gag, it was slowly killing you. In 16th-century England, men couldn’t resist a deathly pallor. So women—including Queen Elizabeth I—would whiten their skin with ceruse, a mixture of vinegar and lead. Side effects included supersexy hair loss and muscle paralysis.

Spain in the 1600s was just as fun. Girls there ate clay to whiten their skin, which gave them anemia. Lip rouge in the 19th century had such delicious ingredients as arsenic and mercury. And the first waterproof mascara, in the 1930s, was made with turpentine, giving ladies those swollen eyelids no man could resist.

If you think applying foundation today is time- consuming, remember that at least you've never had to undergo a biblical makeover. In the Book of Esther, ladies who wanted a date with King Xerxes of Persia had to spend half a year being primped with myrrh oil and then half a year being bathed with perfumes and spices. Presumably, Xerxes was in the living room for 10 months checking his sundial and asking, “Um, you gonna be much longer?”

And while carrying lipstick can certainly be a pain, at least you don’t need a box of fake facial moles. In the days of Louis XV, when beauty marks were considered especially beautiful, women toted around a “patch box” filled with black, gummed taffeta shaped like circles, stars, crescents, animals, insects, or silhouettes of people, which they wore on their faces.

French women of that era also loved towering wigs and kept them in place with animal lard. The only problem was that the lard attracted rats, which made nests in the wig.

To be fair, the past wasn’t all bad with regard to cosmetics. England’s Parliament actually banned lipstick in 1770. They thought it was a form of witchcraft. That would show your meddling friend.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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May 23, 2017
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