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17 Russian Travel Tips for Visiting America

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istock

Here are some things Russians think other Russians who are preparing to visit the U.S. should know.

1. Don't Worry About Bringing Gifts to Americans ...

Gift giving isn't a big deal to Americans. In fact, according to the site Деловой этикет по-американски, "Americans do not expect them. On the contrary, an unexpected gift while conducting business can put an American in an awkward position. Such things for Americans suggest reciprocity." But not all gifts will make Americans feel awful. They love gifts that are "purely Russian," with some caveats:

If you do gift, it is desirable to bring something purely Russian when you visit the United States. But make it 'purely Russian' for modern America—not nesting dolls and samovar. Instead bring a good book about Moscow or Russian history, art and culture. Americans appreciate a good education and have great respect for cognitive literature.

2. ... And definitely don't bring business gifts.

“Business gifts in the U.S. are not acceptable," the site Национальные особенности этикета в США cautions. "[T]hey often cause suspicion. Americans fear that they could be construed as a bribe, and in the United States that is strictly punishable by law.”

3. If you're a man, be careful when dealing with American ladies.

According to the Russian site Этикет США, “U.S. etiquette prohibits flirting with a woman who is not your girlfriend or wife. If you are not acquainted with a woman, whether she be in a restaurant, on the street, or on the subway, do not look at her legs, etc. Americans could easily call the police on you, even for just ogling her.”

When it comes to introducing yourself to a woman, the site Национальные особенности этикета в США advises caution. You shouldn't kiss her, not even her hand:

Welcome and introductions: men and women tend to shake hands. Mutual kissing and kissing ladies' hands is not accepted. Also, women play a greater role in business. Often they insist to be treated exactly as an equal and not as a lady. In this regard, it is not acceptable to be excessively gallant, and you should avoid personal questions (do not find out whether she is married).

See Also: 10 Japanese Travel Tips for Visiting America

4. They'd prefer it if you got to the point …

"Americans generally do not like long intros and prefer to go directly to the subject matter, especially if it's a phone conversation," says the site Американский речевой этикет. "In Russia we talk about general topics before moving on to the reason for the call."

That said, once you're having a phone conversation, Americans won't be thrilled if you just hang up on them. "Americans are often surprised by the Russian habit of quickly breaking off a conversation and hanging up," the site notes. "Phone etiquette in America usually involves the gradual end of the conversation, confirmation agreements and standard closing remarks. By the way, 'see you later' should not be taken literally. That is a courtesy, and no more."

5. … But would like you to avoid pointed statements.

According to Американский речевой этикет, "Russian conversational patterns often sound harsh to Americans. Statements such as, 'You’re wrong,' can be offensive. This can be interpreted as 'You are telling lies!'" Instead, soften it up: "[I]t is better to say, 'I do not think I can agree with this.'"

6. You Can Only Talk About Health in Certain Situations.

And that situation is when your friend is in the hospital. Otherwise, according to the site Американский речевой этикет, “What seems caring can be regarded as an invasion of privacy, lack of tact. You have to have some justification to show interest in their health." Finally, the site notes, "Do not ask the effect of a magnetic storm (not many Americans know what that is) on their well-being.”

7. When your American friend invites you to a picnic, bring something sporty (and maybe a flask).

The site Деловой этикет по-американски discusses a hypothetical situation in which a Russian visitor to the United States is invited on the most American of outings: The Picnic. (This will only happen "if you’ve known each other for several years and are social outside the office," though, so probably won't be an option for the novice traveler.) According to the site, "As a rule, the invitation will be only on a weekend, and you don’t have to prepare for something extravagant. Everything is the same as ours, only with far less booze. Bring something sporty—ball, badminton, Americans are certainly fervent fans of these things.” Our tip: Russians concerned about the dearth of booze should bring their own in a flask.

8. Don't be weirded out if Americans put their feet up on stuff.

“When Americans are talking, they might put their foot on a nearby chair, or even a table," says the site Национальные особенности этикета в США. "They might cross their legs so that one foot rests on the opposite knee. In American culture, it is considered an acceptable norm, but often causes irritation in other countries.”

See Also: 11 French Travel Tips for Visiting America

9. Americans are very optimistic ...

“Americans and Russians say different things when faced with the same situation," notes the site Американский речевой этикет. "Seeing the man who had fallen in the street, an American asks, 'Are you all right?' Russians will inquire: 'Are you ill?' We see a victim of the incident; they see survivors. Survivors are perceived as heroes. Where we 'aren’t sick,' they 'stay well.' We discuss the problem. They discuss issues and items on the agenda."

10. ... And you should keep it positive, too. The Americans demand it.

It all starts with a smile. “U.S. etiquette requires that you smile in each and every situation," says the site Этикет США. "If you want to travel to America, be prepared to give a smile not only to friends and acquaintances, but also to all passers-by, in shops, to the staff at the hotel, police on the streets, etc." Don't whine about your problems or the troubles in your life, either: "Sharing in this country can only be positive emotions—sorrows and frustrations are impermissible. In the U.S. you only complain to acquaintances in the most extreme cases. Serious problems are for close friends and relatives only."

This cheerfulness isn't a put-on, the site notes. "Americans: they are a nation that truly feels happy. These people get used to smiling from the cradle onwards, so they do not pretend to be cheerful. The desire for a successful happy life is inculcated from childhood.”

11. Americans are very competitive ...

According to an academic essay about the ethics of American etiquette at Bibliofond, "Americans love competition. They appreciate achievement records, and are constantly competing with each other. Although this behavior is natural for them, to us it may seem overbearing and intrusive. They are autonomous and independent. From early childhood, the Americans are accustomed to ‘stand on their own feet’ that is, rely only on themselves."

A writer on the commercial export site Экспортеры России agrees: “A resident of this country will never complain and talk about their failures. Regardless of the situation, the American will always look confident, healthy, radiating success.”

12. ... And are taught from a young age that they're awesome.

If you're a Russian visiting the U.S. and notice that Americans seem to have an overwhelming sense of superiority, know that that's been ingrained in them since they were little, according to Экспортеры России: “The Americans have a strong sense of independence, self-reliance; they are able to compete and win anywhere, anytime. This is due to perceptions of citizens about the dominant position of the U.S. in the world, which is laid at an early age and is at the heart of the education system.”

13. Formality isn’t necessary.

Formality and overt classicism of any kind makes Americans uncomfortable. According to Экспортеры России, “The Americans, having a friendly nature, always seek to establish an informal atmosphere. So they prefer to communicate with people by first name, regardless of their age and position.”

Adds Bibliofond, “The Americans are straight people who appreciate honesty and candor, quickly move to the point of conversation and do not spend time on formalities. Americans do not like stiffness, and prefer comfortable, casual clothes. They refer to each other simply, informally, even if between the interlocutors there is a big difference in age and social position.”

14. Be very careful not to sound snooty.

Экспортеры России advises Russians visiting the U.S. to “Insert jokes into the conversations, it is considered a sign of good taste. And remember they speak American English. They consider London pronunciation an arrogant version of their language.”

15. Follow the Rules.

The travel site tonkosti knows that to many a Russian tourist, an American’s dedication to following rules will appear almost childish:

There is too much law-abiding in Americans. It makes them seem naïve to Russians. But it is due to the fact that almost everywhere is installed hidden cameras; in the shops, on the streets, in restaurants, hotels and so on. Hence, any offense cannot go unnoticed. It is better to stick to the letter of U.S. law than to escape from its clutches and reduce to zero the probability of re-visiting the American continent.

Walking against the light? Littering? Taking up two parking spaces? All against the rules. And you better make sure you recycle, too:

Modern cowboys do not smoke in public, i.e. restaurants, bars and other places where a zone is not provided for smokers. For smoking in the wrong place you could be fined, as well as for incorrect disposal of waste: for each type of waste (glass, plastic, paper) in the United States, there are separate boxes.

16. Don’t joke about being a terrorist. Americans will not laugh.

Tonkosti prepares would-be travelers for the ordeal of arriving at an American airport, which will likely involve a search of the traveler and his belongings and questions about terrorism:

You will be asked about the purpose of your visit to the United States (business travel, tourism, etc.), and—do not be surprised—airport employees may ask whether you have any relation to terrorist groups. In no case do you joke on the topic of terrorism—for the Americans it is a serious issue. If the person asking you questions on your arrival does not like your responses, you will be invited to the office of the security services at the airport. This is serious: you could be sent home, and never set foot on American soil.

17. Don't call people ugly.

This should probably be filed under "commonsense things to avoid," but Bibliofond warns travelers anyway:

At the table is better to avoid talking about politics and religion, as the United States is a country of Puritan values. In the straight-line American culture there is a taboo forbidding calling out the physical defects of another person. This is probably due to the constant desire of Americans to always be in great shape and look young.

Yeah. That’s probably the reason.

A version of this post appeared in 2014.

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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
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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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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