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9 Dos and Don'ts of Funeral Etiquette

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There's no "right" thing to say to someone who has just lost a close friend, family member, or significant other. However, there are general etiquette rules to follow at the memorial service.

mental_floss spoke with Amy Cunningham, a Brooklyn-based funeral director who runs an establishment called Fitting Tribute Funeral Services, to get a sense of what is appropriate—and what is not—at a funeral or memorial service. While funerary customs differ from family to family, Cunningham provided a list of tips that are universal enough to apply to any ceremony.

1. DO: DRESS CONSERVATIVELY

“Modesty reigns. You're there to listen and learn, not seize the limelight,” Cunningham says. In short, steer clear of flashy or distracting outfits and accessories. While it’s a good rule of thumb to stick with darker colors, don’t worry about wearing all black. After all, “black isn't as uniformly correct as it used to be. At the Washington D.C. burial of a journalist, Diana McLellan, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times wore white,” Cunningham says. (Of course, this is entirely dependent on the culture. Different countries have their own de-facto shades for mourning.) Also, it goes without saying that you should make sure everything’s neat, clean, ironed, and tucked in.

2. DON'T: SIT JUST ANYWHERE

The general practice is that the first few rows of the church or venue are reserved for family members or close friends. If you’re neither of those, sit toward the middle or the back. Once you're seated, stay put (and quiet) for the ceremony's duration. If you start coughing or crying, feel free to go to the bathroom or lobby and wait until it passes.

3. DO: ACT NORMAL

Chances are, you don’t know what to say to the person whose loved one just died. That’s OK. There’s no magic phrase that will make everything better, or sum up how sorry you are for their loss. Instead of tripping over your words, “be normal, hug, say nothing. Hug again,” Cunningham says. “Bring them some water or a snack if you see that they're stuck talking to folks in a receiving line or something.” It's also a nice gesture to send flowers or a card to the family member's residence or workplace, or to the funeral home in time for the visitation or memorial service. Try to send these sooner, rather than later.

4. DON'T: BE LATE

Cunningham says it’s a good idea to show up about 10 minutes early to a funeral. (If you think the service will be crowded, swing by a half-hour early so you can nab a seat.) If you do come late, the Emily Post Institute recommends that you remain unobtrusive by entering a row through a side aisle. If there’s a procession, wait outside until it’s done. However, it’s not the end of the world if you’re tardy. At the end of the day, the family is likely to be distracted for reasons other than your delayed arrival.

5. DO: LAUGH

If someone makes a joke during the eulogy, don’t be afraid to crack up. (To stay on the safe side, follow the family’s lead.)

6. DON'T: INSTAGRAM THE FUNERAL

Keep your phone off or on silent—and better yet, keep it in your pocket or purse. It’s inappropriate to tweet, Instagram, or Snapchat a funeral unless you’re an immediate family member. (In that case, you might want to use social media to take advantage of digital memorial platforms or websites.) As for photos, you shouldn't snap any during the ceremony, but it's OK to take them if you're away from the mourners and you want to pose for a group shot with friends or family members you wouldn't have seen otherwise.

7. DO: BRING KIDS

Babies should be left with a sitter, but it’s fine to bring kids over the age of six or so to a funeral. Don’t worry that the occasion will make them anxious or sad. “Kids want to be a part of the festivities, and are generally less scared of death than we assume they are,” Cunningham says.

If your child was close to the person who died, they might be asked to participate in the ceremony. They can read poetry, speak, sing, or play instruments. In short, be creative with your child's involvement. “We don't give kids enough to do at funerals,” Cunningham says.

8. DON'T: BE RATTLED BY RELIGION

If a service contains religious elements, don’t worry if you’re not a practicing member of the faith. You shouldn't feel forced to partake in a sacrament or say a prayer out loud. Instead, “stand and listen. Marvel at the world's liturgy and funeral customs,” Cunningham says.

9. DO: TAKE SOME TIME TO REFLECT

While you go to a funeral to pay tribute to someone who died, it’s OK to also take some time to reflect on your own life. “When you attend a funeral, you are—like it or not—exposing yourself to life's greatest mystery,” Cunningham says. “It’s an opportunity to sift through your own ideas regarding life's meaning, your work, your friendships, your family—in short, your commitment to living fully … Even if you don't experience a transporting ‘Eureka’ moment, you will get something out of it if you're present to what's happening.”

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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