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10 Things You No Longer See in Hotels

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General Photographic Agency/Getty Images
Hotels first started popping up in the U.S. during the 18th century, but a combination of affordable automobiles and a comprehensive Interstate system helped the lodging industry to explode beginning in the 1950s. In the decades since, hotels and motels have evolved a great deal. And while some changes are for the better, some items make us nostalgic for those clichéd “good old days.” 

1. Postage Paid Key Fobs

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"content_full_width","fid":"154753","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"411","title":"","width":"620"}}]] When hotels and motels still used metal keys, they regularly came attached to large plastic key tags that listed not only the hotel’s name and address, but also the room number of the key holder. They also included a “Guaranteed Postage Paid” stamp, so that guests who absentmindedly walked away with the key could drop it into any mailbox the next time they emptied their pockets. Today's computerized key cards provide guests with an extra safety measure: they are re-keyed after every check-out, making it impossible for any random person (or former guest who held onto a key) to enter the room. 

2. Magic Fingers

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"content_full_width","fid":"154754","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"465","title":"","width":"620"}}]] Before they became a standard cliché involving “adult” motels, vibrating beds (originally operated by a staff member, who manually shook the bed) were often prescribed as a remedy for a variety of health ailments by doctors in the early part of the 20th century. The Englander Mattress Company came out with a mechanical vibrating mattress in 1958, and salesman John Houghtaling was working hard trying to sell their new contraption to hotels and motels. He hit a stumbling block, though; while hoteliers liked the product, they didn’t want to dispose of hundreds of perfectly good mattresses to replace them with vibrating models, which cost $200 apiece. Houghtaling went to work in his basement, and eventually devised what he called the "Magic Fingers" system. It consisted of a small electric motor, about half the size of a coffee can, with an off-center weight on the shaft. The device could be connected to four coil springs inside of an existing mattress and it would (after a quarter was dropped into the attached coin box) shake just like the Englander mattress.  He eventually set up a factory and sold the Magic Fingers units for $25 to franchised distributors, who in turn re-sold them to hotels and motels across the country. During the heyday of Magic Fingers (the 1960s to mid-1970s), his sales were about $2 million per month. The tide first began to turn in 1967, when the Best Western chain announced that it was removing all coin-operated devices from their rooms as they felt they “cheapened” the company’s image. Eventually other chains followed suit, particularly when vibrating beds became a common joke in movies and on TV when making reference to a sleazy truck stop or den of iniquity. 

3. Pay As You Exit

As recently as the mid-1970s it was common practice to check into a hotel by simply filling out a brief registration form (no identification or credit card required). Your room key was handed over and you were trusted to pay for your stay when you checked out and returned the key. Folks who sneaked out without paying were known as “skippers” in the industry lingo, and even back in the 1950s hotel bellmen kept a wary eye on patrons who checked in with a minimal amount of luggage. Folks planning on scamming the hotel would arrive with one bag with the barest of necessities packed inside. Instead of checking out at the end of their stay, they’d leave their suitcase in the room and casually waltz out through the lobby, never to return. Most lodging establishments today require either a swipe of your credit card or a cash payment in advance before they’ll hand over a room key. 

4. Googie Signage

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"content_full_width","fid":"154759","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"512","title":"","width":"620"}}]]
Ron, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
One of the most welcome sights after a long day of driving was a colorful, twinkling, blinking sign offering a comfy bed (along with other amenities) for the night. Googie architecture, a futuristic style inspired by the Space Race, was popular in the 1950s and '60s. Buildings had bold, curving, geometric shapes and their signs were bursting with mutlicolored neon parabolas, boomerangs, and starbursts. Holiday Inn was famous for its dazzling Great Sign, which the chain sadly retired in 1982. Much like the old Best Western signs, it was a bit of Las Vegas perched on a signpost, but most chains have since eschewed glitz in favor of more subdued, “sophisticated” signage. 

5. Tile Showers as a Selling Point

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"content_full_width","fid":"154760","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"413","title":"","width":"620"}}]] Oddly enough, a common bragging bullet point listed on many motel postcards from the mid-20th century is “tiled baths (or showers)”. Which sort of begs the question: what were other hostelries using to floor their bathrooms? Wood? Concrete? 

6. Steam Heat

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"content_full_width","fid":"154761","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"495","title":"","width":"620"}}]] You might still find steam heat in some of New York City’s older apartment buildings, but very few commercial lodging establishments utilize that method of climate control these days. Hissing radiators and clanking pipes aren’t a huge draw for customers, especially when you’re selling slumber.

7. Guest Register

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"content_full_width","fid":"154762","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"413","title":"","width":"620"}}]] Sure, it looked elegant and oh-so-civilized to have one giant sign-in book on a Lazy Susan equipped with a penholder for guests to jot down their personal information while the desk clerk checked availability and summoned a bellhop. But there’s a reason this was regularly used as a plot device in many films noirs: it was hardly secure and any old mob hitman or skip tracer could easily glance at the page and see who was in the house. Luckily hotels now make more effort to guard their customers’ privacy. 

8. Key Cubbies

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"content_full_width","fid":"154763","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"355","title":"","width":"620"}}]] Another previously common feature of yesteryear that has since been recognized as a possible security hazard is the large key cubby that used to hang on the wall behind every hotel front desk. Whenever a patron left the building, it was customary for him or her to leave the room key with the desk clerk. That way the front desk staff could tell at a glance who was in their room and who wasn’t so that they could take messages (which were also left in the cubbies) or, in case of a general emergency, know how many patrons to evacuate. Again, nefarious types were able to use this obvious visual clue to rifle through unoccupied rooms (hey, they were nefarious, that’s why they could easily break into a hotel room unnoticed), so it’s probably best that this type of red flag is no longer publicly posted. 

9. Checking In Under an Alias

It used to be a running gag to register as “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” or some other alias whenever a sitcom plot needed to emphasize that an unmarried couple was checking into a motel for some quick afternoon delight. But thanks to decades of customers increasingly stealing from and vandalizing their rooms, most hotels and motels require a photo I.D. upon check-in, even if you are paying cash for your room and no credit card is involved.

10. Mutual Trust

The behavior of guests has apparently been deteriorating over the years—either that or hoteliers have simply developed more elaborate ways to ensure that great memories are the only thing a guest brings back home. It began when hotels started bolting down the lamps and television sets as a response to theft. Then warning signs began appearing in rooms, alerting guests that they would be charged for any missing towels, etc. Mini-bar security came next, with many hotels equipping their in-room minibars with sensors so that the customer is automatically charged any time an item is removed or even moved (which means that if you open the fridge to store your own beverages and happen to bump a can of their soda, you might be charged for it). Yet, with all these safeguards in place to protect the hotel from pilferage, customers’ belongings are not equally secure. Most hotels have policies (if not signs in the rooms) that state they cannot guarantee that anything left unattended in their guest rooms will still be there if the room is left unattended for any length of time.
All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise stated. 
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

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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