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9 Breakfast Tips and Tricks from 19th-Century Etiquette Books

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Breakfast is tricky. Trying to find something that's the right balance of healthy, palatable, and portable when you'd rather still be asleep is no mean feat. And your high-society forefathers and mothers get it, too. Or at least, they had their own problems to deal with when it came to serving up the most important meal of the day. Even though many books on the subject made reference to the comparatively lax nature of breakfast, etiquette texts were full of instructions for hostesses struggling with a "morning appetite, which is generally dull and void of taste," as one such manual put it.

1. Take off the top hat—you look ridiculous.

The dress suitable for a breakfast is ordinary morning style, though sometimes full evening dress for gentlemen is indulged in, but this is affected and out of taste.

Hand-book of Official and Social Etiquette and Public Ceremonials at Washington, 1889

2. But that doesn't mean you should look like a slob.

No lady, even in her own home, will come down to breakfast in a dress in which she would be ashamed to be seen by a stranger: collars and cuffs should be clean and nice, the hair well dressed, and the morning gown carefully put on; then, whatever the materials, the wearer will look well and ladylike. Jewellery (sic) should not be worn in the early morning, with the exception of rings habitually worn; a brooch and ear-rings, which should not be of pearls or diamonds.

Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen1876

3. It's good to be a lady.

Where men-servants are in attendance, it is not necessary that the gentlemen should wait upon the ladies; otherwise the laws of chivalry, on which modern politeness is based, require that the fair sex should have every want anticipated.

The Hand-book of Etiquette, 1860

4. Variety is the socially necessary spice of breakfast.

Tea and coffee are both necessities at breakfast, and often chocolate and cocoa, brown and white bread, cream, milk (hot and cold), butter, jam, honey, marmalade, fancy bread and cakes, with muffins in the winter, are the usual viands provided in large country houses…

On the other hand, in some houses breakfast is laid upon a large table, as dinner or luncheon would be served, and then it becomes a very stiff proceeding. A side table, well laden with cold meat, game (when in season), potted fish, ham, tongue, etc., should always be provided, and plenty of hot dishes, such as kedgeree, devilled-chicken, kidneys, eggs and bacon, broiled ham, cutlets, sausages, etc.

Etiquette: What To Do, and How To Do It, 1885

5. Live a little—pour your own coffee.

It is rather pleasant to dismiss the servants and to wait on one’s self at breakfast.

Etiquette, the American Code of Manners, 1884

6. Your flowers should have that perfectly undone, "I woke up like this" feel.

In the centre of the table there should be a vase of flowers; in summer a china bowl of fresh-gathered roses, or a bunch of wild flowers, is a pretty ornament; later in the year a deep plate filled with moss, and studded with asters, dahlias, or chrysanthemums, has a good effect; at other seasons a fresh green fern—anything which adds brightness and grace to the table, but at the same time is not stiff and formal. The arrangement of flowers for a breakfast table should never be so studied or formal as that for a dinner table, nor even as the drawing-room bouquets. They should possess the distinctive feature of elegant negligence and simplicity. 

Etiquette of Good Society, 1893

7. Shut up and eat.

The most quiet meal of the day is breakfast...Never find fault with your food...Do not be ashamed to eat all on your plate, if you can.

Perfect Etiquette, Or, How to Behave in Society, 1877

8. Talk about your nighttime activities, but nothing personal.

Conversation at the breakfast table should be on pleasant topics, and may be in some measure personal, extending to inquiries as to one’s health, how the night was passed, etc., but should never become unpleasantly or pointedly personal.

Breakfast, Dinner and Supper, 1884

9. Avoid these tips at your own risk.

The custom of swallowing a cup of coffee, and "snatching a bite," before going to business, and calling it breakfast, cannot be too strongly deprecated. It is doing much to lay the foundation for dyspepsia and nervousness, of which the world already has too much. Indeed, it may be said to not only lay the foundation for these diseases, but is contributing largely to their superstructure.

Breakfast, Dinner and Supper, 1884

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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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