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Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Swift Were Fart Joke Masters

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Benjamin Franklin was many things: printer, inventor, postmaster, turkey-zapper, constitution-signer, and connoisseur of fart jokes.

The founding father fancied flatus. So much, actually, that in 1781 he penned an essay dedicated to the thunder down under.

Franklin lived in Paris at the time, serving as US Ambassador to France. There, he heard that the Royal Academy at Brussels was requesting scientific essays and would award prizes for the best papers. The news annoyed Franklin. He thought scientists were falling out of touch with reality. Year after year, they churned out pompous papers that didn’t make life better for the common man. Science should be practical, Franklin thought. Science should help everyday problems. Science should, you know, make farts smell good.

To the Royal Academy…

So Franklin wrote a mock letter, "To the Royal Academy,” which opened explaining why people try to restrain and contain their windy emissions:

"It is universally well known, That in digesting our common Food, there is created or produced in the Bowels of human Creatures, a great Quantity of Wind. That the permitting this Air to escape and mix with the Atmosphere, is usually offensive to the Company, from the fetid Smell that accompanies it. That all well-bred People therefore, to avoid giving such Offence, forcibly restrain the Efforts of Nature to discharge that Wind.

Franklin argued that holding back gas could be painful, even life threatening. If science could improve the smell, maybe people would break wind freely:

“Were it not for the odiously offensive Smell accompanying such Escapes, polite People would probably be under no more Restraint in discharging such Wind in Company, than they are in spitting, or in blowing their Noses.”

Franklin urges the academy to “Discover some Drug wholesome & not disagreeable, to be mix’d with our common Food, or Sauces, that shall render the natural Discharges of Wind from our Bodies, not only inoffensive, but agreable as Perfumes.”

Because who needs cologne when your air biscuit freshens the room with the aroma of blooming daisies?

An Idea Worth a FART-hing

Franklin’s letter was a joke, of course. He never sent it to the academy. Instead, he mailed it to Richard Price, a British philosopher and friend of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. Price was a member of London’s Royal Society, and he would’ve appreciated Franklin’s jab at academia, especially its closing. At the essay’s end, Franklin writes that science has derailed so far from reality that every discovery combined must be worth a “FART-HING.”

(In case you’re wondering, fragrant flatulence probably isn’t possible. When you smell a flatus, you’re actually catching a whiff of hydrogen sulfide and methanethiol. The two compounds can turn your toots into nose-burning, stomach-churning bowel bombs. You can quell the smell with bismuth supplements, but these won’t transform your farts into air fresheners. They’ll just knock your stinkers scentless.)

Jonathan Swift: Master of the Gasser

Franklin wasn’t the only believer in the art of the fart. Sixty years earlier, Jonathan Swift—a master of satire and author of Gulliver’s Travels—wrote an essay titled “The Benefit of Farting Explain’d,” published in a pamphlet in 1722.

The paper’s title page is peppered with puns. Swift hides under the pseudonym “Don Fartinhando Puff-Indorst, Professor of Bumbast at the University of Craccow.” The essay is “translated into English at the Request and for the Use of the Lady Damp-Fart, of Her-fart-shire” by “Obadiah Fizle, Groom of the Stool to the Princess of Arse-Mini in Sardinia.” Oh, and it was also reviewed by a “College of Fizz-icians.”

Seriously. We can’t make this up.

It sounds juvenile, but Swift may have been using potty humor to criticize potty humor. By the 18th century, flatulence had become taboo. Farting was rude, and gas-passing was merely raw material for crude jokes (and in some cases, subject to censorship law.) But it hadn’t always been that way—farts had a proud literary history. For centuries, authors had used scatology as a serious symbol for mortality, decay, and impurity. Dante, St. Augustine, Chaucer, Marlowe, Dryden, and even Martin Luther wrote about cutting the cheese, using flatulence as a literary symbol and even a political tool.

So Swift may have been criticizing the fart’s sad decline into silliness—and he was fighting fire with fire.

Inside “The Benefits”

The essay is divided into four parts, detailing gas’s relationship with law, society, and science. The second section, however, may be the most inventive: After clarifying the nature, essence, and definition of the common fart, Swift explains why it’s bad to bottle up your tailwind—and offers a (sexist) theory to one of life’s mysteries:

“I shall next enquire into the ill consequence of suppressing [gas], which . . . causes Cholicks, hystericks, rumblings, belching, spleen, etc, but in the women of a more strong constitution, it vents itself intirely in talkativeness; hence we have a reason, why women are more talkative than men.”

Swift says it’s better to let one rip than hold it inside. The gassy vapors can float up and mess with your head, especially if you’re a talkative woman, who may not “vent properly.” Swift theorizes that’s why people cry, too:

“If this vapour, when rais’d to the head, is there condensed by a cold melancholy constitution, it distills thor’ the Eyes in Form of Tears.”

He captures his thesis with the nugget: “Whoth stop’t at one end, burst out."

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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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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.

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