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25 Pieces of Advice from a 19th Century Etiquette Book

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For unsolicited, antiquated advice, you can’t do much better than 1883’s American Etiquette and Rules of Politeness by Walter R. Houghton. It covers everything from which colors are harmonious to proper wedding anniversary gifts to how to behave at the White House, and (as you’ll read below) what to do when in the presence of an inferior human being. Completely unrelated: it’s also terribly sexist. Read on for a glimpse of society life was like 130 years ago.


This bit of advice is actually pretty sensible. "Be free from tattling," Houghton urges. "Do not inflict upon society another member of that despicable and dangerous species called gossipers. That tongue that carries slander and defames the character of others is as black as sin itself. Always be careful in your conversation not to dwell on what you heard somebody say about somebody else."


Turns out, cutting a badly behaved individual is a time-honored tradition.  "The 'cut' is given by a continued stare at a person," Houghton instructs. "This can only be justified at all by extraordinary and notoriously bad conduct on the part of the one 'cut,' and it is very seldom called for. Should any one desire to avoid a bowing acquaintance with another, it may be done by turning aside or dropping the eyes."

It's also important to know who you can cut: "Good society will not allow a gentleman to give a lady the 'cut' under any circumstances; yet there may be circumstances in which he would be excused for persisting in not meeting her eyes, for should their eyes meet he must bow, even though she fail to grant him a decided recognition," Houghton writes.


This piece of etiquette is not just outdated, it's become the offender: "The practice of women kissing each other in public is decidedly vulgar, and is avoided entirely by ladies of delicacy and true refinement."


"Such exclamations as 'The Dickens,' or 'Mercy,' or 'Good Gracious,' should never be used," Houghton writes. "If you are surprised or astonished, suppress the fact. Such expressions border closely on profanity."


This piece of advice manages an impressive feat: being disrespectful when it thinks it's being respectful. "A gentleman should never lower the intellectual standard in conversing with ladies," Houghton says. "He should consider them as equal in understanding with himself. A lady of intelligence will not feel compliments by any means, if, when you talk to her, you 'come down' to common-place topics."


Houghton's instruction here seems practical at first, then veers into preemptive creeper-prevention: "Look in the way you are going, both to avoid collisions and because it is bad manners to stare in any other direction. If you chance to see an acquaintance at a window you show bow; but, by all means, do not stare into houses. Avoid looking full into the faces of strangers whom you meet, especially of ladies."


It's not just risky, it's uncouth: "For a lady to run across the street before a carriage is inelegant and dangerous."


Who knew that a horseback riding date contained so much responsibility? "When a gentleman has an engagement to go riding with a lady, he should be very careful in selecting her horse, and should procure one that she can easily manage," Houghton writes. "It is his duty to see that her saddle and bridle are perfectly secure; trust nothing to the stable men, without personal examination. He must not keep the lady waiting, clad in her riding costume."


After all, men are just trying to please you. Let them do so in a timely manner. "Ladies who are invited to drive with gentlemen, at a certain hour, should be ready exactly at that moment. It is neither well-bred nor dignified to keep any one waiting who has made an appointment conducive to your pleasure," Houghton lectures. "Have everything ready, gloves on and buttoned up, and all arrangements of the toilet complete."


Another piece of etiquette that generally holds true to this day. "A visitor should not appear to notice any unpleasant family affairs that fall under his observation. He should never comment upon them to strangers, or to the host himself, unless his friend should first broach the subject," Houghton instructs. "Also, if you do not find your friend in as high a state of prosperity as you had anticipated do not take too evident notice of the fact. Your observations may be cruel as well as impolite."


Another bit of common sense that's stood the test of time. "It is very unwise, not to say presumptuous, for a gentleman to make a proposal to a young lady on a too brief acquaintance," Houghton explains, elaborating:

Such hasty proposals generally come from mere adventurers, or else from mere novices in love, so that in either case they are to be rejected. A lady who would accept a gentleman at first sight can hardly possess the discretion needed to make a good wife.


But only do so in very particular, gender-specific ways:

To every well-bred man and woman physical education is indispensable. It is the duty of a gentleman to know how to ride, to shoot, to fence, to box, to swim, to row, and to dance. He should be graceful. If attacked by ruffians, a man should be able to defend himself, and also to defend women from their insults. Dancing, skating, swimming, archery, games of lawn tennis, riding and driving, and croquet, all aid in developing and strengthening the muscles, and should be practiced by ladies. The better the physical training, the more self-possessed and graceful she will be. Open-air exercise is essential to good health and a perfect physical development.


"If a lady is requested to sing or play, she should do so at once, if she intends to comply, without waiting to be urged," Houghton mandates. "In refusing, she should do it in a manner that shall make her decision final. A lady should not monopolize the evening with her performances, but return to make room for others. It is a mark of vanity for a lady to exhibit any anxiety to sing or play."


One might say this is the primary tenet of good manners: "It is a mark of good breeding to suppress undue emotion, whether of disappointment, of mortification, or laughter, of anger, or of selfishness in any form."


"Never affect superiority," Houghton writes. "If you chance to be in the company of an inferior, do not let him feel his inferiority. When you invite an inferior as your guest, treat him with all the politeness and consideration you would show an equal."


I think we can all agree that Houghton's moratorium on puns is indeed for the best. "Avoid bringing anecdotes into the conversation," he counsels. "Do not exhibit vulgarity by 'making puns.' Indulge with moderation in repartees, as they degenerate into the vulgarity of altercation."


And do so in a terrifying manner:

Moles may be removed by moistening a stick of nitrate of silver, and touching them: they turn black, become sore, dry up, and fall off. If they do not go by first application, repeat. They are generally a great disfigurement to the face and should be removed, but it is better and safer to consult a surgeon before taking any steps to remove them.


This intense bit of instruction on keeping the eyes unadorned is both nice in its sentiment, and probably wise health advice. "Beautiful eyes are always admired. Nothing lends so much to the beauty of the eyes as an honest, intelligent, benevolent expression of the face," Houghton writes. "They eyes are the index of the soul, and many traits of character may be read in them; therefore, it should be remembered, that to have pleasing eyes, pleasing traits of character should be cultivated, and a clear conscience preserved. Their beauty is independent of all arts of the toilet. Nothing is more foolish and vulgar than painting or coloring the lids or lashes. The eyes are very delicate and should never be tampered with. They are easily destroyed."


"No well-bred gentleman will load himself with jewelry," Houghton asserts. "He may wear one ring, a watch chain, studs and cuff buttons."


Any gift made by a lady "should be of a delicate nature, usually some dainty product of their own taste and skill," Houghton writes. "If a married lady makes a present to a gentleman she should give it in the name of both herself and her husband."


In the era of Snapchat, a caution to keep your wits about you when writing a love letter is downright sweet. Jane Austen readers will appreciate this one. "A love letter should be dignified in tone and expressive of esteem and affection," Houghton writes. "It should be free from silly and extravagant expressions, and contain nothing of which the writer would be ashamed were the letter to fall under the eyes of any person beside the one to whom it was written."


A rare instance in which Houghton makes allowances for fun. "At picnics, while ladies and gentlemen will not forget to be polite and courteous, forms and ceremonies are thrown aside," he writes. "Men and women engage in these days of pleasure that they may escape, for a time, the cares of business, and the restraints of formal society, so at such times it is the duty of all to make the occasion one of gayety and mirth."


Certainly this could not have smelled good.

One-half ounce sugar of lead, one half ounce lac sulphur, one ounce glycerine, one quart rain water. Saturate the hair and scalp with this two or three times per week and you will soon have a head free from gray hairs and dandruff, while the hair will be soft and glossy.


Cream of tartar is still used as a common material to whiten teeth naturally. Though by the sound of things, it probably had to work a lot harder back then. "Pulverize equal parts of salt and cream of tartar, and mix them thoroughly," Houghton instructs. "After washing the teeth in the morning, rub them with this powder, and after a few such applications the blackness will disappear."


It's unclear what the cologne is doing here, but smelling nice is always in line with good etiquette: "Wash the face in tepid water, rub thoroughly with a towel, and apply a lotion made of half an ounce of liquor of potash, and three ounces of cologne. Make the application with a soft flannel rag."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.