CLOSE
Original image
CHLOE EFFRON // WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (SIR JOHN MANDEVILLE), ISTOCK (AIRPORT)

10 Travel Tips From Medieval Explorers

Original image
CHLOE EFFRON // WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (SIR JOHN MANDEVILLE), ISTOCK (AIRPORT)

We’ve all heard the typical travel advice to pack light, get to the airport early enough, and buy a disposable cell phone to save money abroad. But centuries ago, medieval explorers shared their own sage travel advice. Here are 10 things we can learn from noted medieval globe-trotters Ibn Battuta and Sir John Mandeville about the art of travel.

1. KEEP YOUR BAGS SECURELY CLOSED AT ALL TIMES.

Ibn Battuta was a Muslim scholar who explored parts of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe between 1325 and 1354. After spending time in Cairo, he hired camels to travel through the desert into Upper Egypt. During his journey through the desert, Ibn Battuta learned the importance of keeping a close eye on his baggage. In his account of his travels, the Rihla, he wrote:

“One of our halts was at Humaythira, a place infested with hyenas. All night long we kept driving them away, and indeed one got at my baggage, tore open one of the sacks, pulled out a bag of dates, and made off with it. We found the bag next morning, torn to pieces and with most of the contents eaten.”

2. DO DRINK THE WATER—AT LEAST IF IT’S A FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH.

Sir John Mandeville was said to have been a knight from St. Albans, England, who wrote about his pilgrimage to Jerusalem and his travels to places such as India, China, and Ethiopia during the 14th century. The text attributed to him, often called The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, is full of wacky fabrications and plagiarized passages, and scholars still debate who really wrote it. It’s worth taking it with a grain (or a heavy helping) of salt, but that doesn’t mean it doesn't contain interesting travel pointers. 

While traveling along the Indian coast, Mandeville saw a well at the foot of a mountain. The water from the well supposedly cured people of their illnesses. It tasted and smelled great, and Mandeville drank only a few sips, but seemed to feel better afterward. In his book The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, he wrote: 

“And they that dwell there and drink often of that well they never have sickness; and they seem always young. I have drunken thereof three or four sithes, and yet, methinketh, I fare the better. Some men clepe it the well of youth. For they that often drink thereof seem always young-like, and live without sickness. And men say, that that well cometh out of Paradise, and therefore it is so virtuous.”

3. DON’T URINATE NEAR A CROCODILE.

While Ibn Battuta traveled along the Niger River in western Africa (he mistook it for the Nile), his nether regions had a close call with a crocodile’s jaws. Luckily, a local man came and stood between Ibn Battuta and the river, blocking the crocodile. Ibn Battuta mistook the local man’s protective action as rudeness. From the Rihla:

“I saw a crocodile in this part of the Nile, close to the bank; it looked just like a small boat. One day I went down to the river to satisfy a need, and lo, one of the blacks came and stood between me and the river. I was amazed at such lack of manners and decency on his part, and spoke of it to someone or other. [That person] answered. ‘His purpose in doing that was solely to protect you from the crocodile, by placing himself between you and it.’”

Another way of saying this: When you're traveling, sometimes you have to be open-minded about your personal space.

4. DON’T WORRY—HOMESICKNESS AND LONELINESS WILL PASS.

Ibn Battuta began his travels by setting out from his home in Tangier, Morocco. He was just 22 years old, and he admitted that it was difficult to leave his parents, friends, and home. As he wrote in the Rihla:

“I set out alone, finding no companion to cheer the way with friendly intercourse, and no party of travellers with whom to associate myself … I resolved to quit all my friends and tear myself away from my home. As my parents were still alive, it weighed grievously upon me to part from them, and both they and I were afflicted with sorrow.”

After suffering a fever en route to Tunis in North Africa, Ibn Battuta felt so lonely upon his arrival (he didn’t know any of the locals) that he cried. A kind pilgrim saw his distress, however, and comforted him. As Ibn Battuta described it in the Rihla:

“The population of the city came out to meet the members of our party, and on all sides greetings and question were exchanged, but not a soul greeted me as no one there was known to me. I was so affected by my loneliness that I could not restrain my tears and wept bitterly, until one of the pilgrims realized the cause of my distress and coming up to me greeted me kindly and continued to entertain me with friendly talk until I entered the city.”

5. DON’T BE SHOCKED IF THE LOCALS DRESS DIFFERENTLY THAN YOU.

Ibn Battuta complained about how the women in Mali walked around topless, saying it was distracting and immodest. As a devout Muslim, he was especially taken aback by seeing nude women in public, a sight he was not used to seeing at home, writing in the Rihla:

“Among their bad qualities are the following. The women servants, slave-girls, and young girls go about in front of everyone naked, without a stitch of clothing on them. Women go into the sultan's presence naked and without coverings, and his daughters also go about naked.”

6. DON’T FLIRT WITH WOMEN WHO HAVE FEET ON THEIR HEADS.

In certain countries that Mandeville purportedly visited, he learned that women signified their marital status in different ways. For example, some unmarried women denoted their availability by wearing coronets on their heads. More bizarrely, some married women wore a fake man’s foot on their heads, bedazzled with jewelry … which is a much more complicated way of saying “I’m taken” than wearing a ring on your left hand. From The Travels of Sir John Mandeville:

“And all those that be married have a counterfeit made like a man's foot upon their heads, a cubit long, all wrought with great pearls, fine and orient, and above made with peacocks' feathers and of other shining feathers; and that stands upon their heads like a crest, in token that they be under man's foot and under subjection of man. And they that be unmarried have none such.” 

7. BE GRACIOUS TO YOUR HOSTS, EVEN IF THEIR BEER TASTES GROSS.

If you’re traveling in foreign lands, relying on the hospitality of strangers, don’t insult the food and drinks you’re offered. Instead, discreetly leave your drink untouched and focus on the food and drinks that you do like. In Turkey, Ibn Battuta tasted beer, found it bitter-tasting, but played it cool, as he wrote in the Rihla:

“Everyone is given his share in a plate with curdled milk, and they drink it, afterwards drinking curdled mares milk, which they call qumizz. They have also a fermented drink prepared from the same grain, which they call buza [beer] and regard as lawful to drink. It is white in colour; I tasted it once and found it bitter, so I left it alone.” 

8. IF YOU ENCOUNTER A RACE OF SMALL MEN, TRY GIVING THEM APPLES.

Mandeville described an island called Pytan where the inhabitants are all small men, though not as small as pygmies. These men don’t bother with farming the land because all they need to do to survive is smell wild apples—no food required. When they leave their country, they bring wild apples with them to sniff so they don’t die, as described in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville:

“And beyond these isles there is another isle that is clept Pytan. The folk of that country ne till not, ne labour not the earth, for they eat no manner thing … But the small be as dwarfs, but not so little as be the Pigmies. These men live by the smell of wild apples. And when they go any far way, they bear the apples with them; for if they had lost the savour of the apples, they should die anon.”

9. IF YOU’RE RUNNING LOW ON MONEY, LOOK FOR GIANT ANTS.

Mandeville, borrowing a story from Book Three of Herodotus’ The Histories, describes how giant ants in a place called Taprobane dug gold from the ground and tried to stop the townspeople from collecting the gold. As he wrote in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville:

“In the isle also of this Taprobane be great hills of gold, that pismires [ants] keep full diligently. And they fine the pured gold, and cast away the un-pured. And these pismires be great as hounds, so that no man dare come to those hills, for the pismires would assail them and devour them anon.”

Although this story sounds completely made up, it actually has some basis in reality. Marmots (a type of large squirrel) that lived around India and Pakistan spread gold dust when they dug the sandy ground, and the locals collected this gold dust. The old Persian word for marmot was similar to the word for mountain ant, hence the origin for the story. 

10. SAVE TIME BY EATING FRUIT AND MEAT FROM THE SAME TREE.

Wikimedia Commons //Public Domain

In Asia, Mandeville claimed to have seen a tree that grew gourds containing little hairless animals, similar to lambs. This vegetable lamb appears in writings and folklore of multiple cultures, and Mandeville said he ate the fruit and enjoyed it—a quick and easy way to get protein and fiber in your diet when you’re on the road. He wrote:

“And there groweth a manner of fruit, as though it were gourds. And when they be ripe, men cut them a- two, and men find within a little beast, in flesh, in bone, and blood, as though it were a little lamb without wool. And men eat both the fruit and the beast. And that is a great marvel. Of that fruit I have eaten, although it were wonderful, but that I know well that God is marvellous in his works.”

 

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Opening Ceremony
fun
arrow
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
Original image
Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

501069-OpeningCeremony2.jpg

Opening Ceremony

To this:

501069-OpeningCeremony3.jpg

Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES