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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.

1. DON'T GOSSIP. 

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."

2. KNOW WHEN TO SHOOT AN ICY GLARE. 

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.

3. DON'T KISS A WOMAN (IF YOU'RE A WOMAN). 

This piece of etiquette is not just outdated, it's become the offender: "The practice of women kissing each other in public is decidedly vulgar, and is avoided entirely by ladies of delicacy and true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

4. WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE.

"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."

5. HEY, DON'T TALK DOWN TO WOMEN.

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."

6. LOOK AROUND—BUT NOT TOO INTENTLY.

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."

7. DON'T PLAY IN TRAFFIC.

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

8. MEN, KNOW HOW TO PICK YOUR WOMAN'S HORSE.

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."

9. BE PUNCTUAL, LADIES.

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."

10. FAKE OBLIVIOUSNESS.

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."

11. DON'T GET ENGAGED TOO QUICKLY.

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.

12. EXERCISE.

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.

13. PERFORM WHEN ASKED, BUT DON'T OVERSTAY YOUR WELCOME.

"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."

14. SUPPRESS YOUR EMOTIONS.

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."

15. DON'T ACT SUPERIOR (EVEN IF YOU OBVIOUSLY ARE).

"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."

16. KEEP VERBAL WITTICISMS TO A MINIMUM.

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."

17. REMOVE YOUR MOLES.

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.

18. DON'T MESS WITH YOUR EYES.

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."

19. PUT THE BLING AWAY, BOYS.

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

20. LADIES, MAKE YOUR GIFTS LADYLIKE.

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."

21. PRACTICE RESTRAINT IN YOUR LOVE LETTERS.

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."

22. DON'T BE A BUZZKILL.

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."

23. ELIMINATE GRAY HAIRS WITH A HOMEMADE CONCOCTION.

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.

24. GET RID OF THOSE UNSIGHTLY BLACK TEETH.

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."

25. BANISH FLESH WORMS.

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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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
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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