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9 Ways People Used Radium Before We Understood the Risks

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Radium was discovered by Marie Curie and her husband Pierre in 1898. In 1903, the Royal Academy of Sciences awarded Marie and Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel the Nobel Prize in Physics, making Marie the first woman to win the prize. Later, in 1911, she would win her second Nobel for isolating radium, discovering another element (polonium), and for her research into the new phenomenon of radioactivity, a word she coined herself.

By 1910, radium was manufactured synthetically in the U.S. But before the effects of radiation exposure were well understood, radium ended up in a lot of crazy places for its purported magical healing properties and its glow-in-the-dark novelty.

1. In Chocolate

Food products containing radium, like the Radium Schokolade chocolate bar manufactured by Burk & Braun and Hippman-Blach bakery’s Radium Bread, made with radium water, were popular overseas until they were discontinued in 1936.

2. In Water

Radium water crocks like the Revigator stored a gallon of water inside a radium-laced bucket; drinking the water would cure any number of ailments, from arthritis to impotence to wrinkles.

3. In Toys and Nightlights

The Radiumscope, a toy sold as late as 1942, offered a glimpse of radium in action. Noting radium’s famed luminescence, the ad also mentions that the radiumscope could double as a “wonderful” nightlight, since it “glows with a weird light in a dark room.”

4. In Toothpaste

Toothpaste containing both radium and thorium was sold by a man named Dr. Alfred Curie, who was not related to Marie or Pierre but didn’t miss an opportunity to capitalize on their name.

5. In Cosmetics

Alfred Curie’s product line didn’t end with dental care, though. He also manufactured the extremely popular Tho-Radia brand of cosmetics, which included powders and creams that promised to rejuvenate and brighten the skin.

6. In Heating Pads and Suppositories

Early 20th-century doctors also jumped onto the radioactive bandwagon with both feet, producing suppositories, heating pads and radioactive coins (used to “charge” small amounts of water), all intended to treat rheumatism, weakness, malaise and just about any health complaint for which a fast and magical cure was needed.

7. In the Treatment of Impotence

Before the days of Viagra and Cialis, treatment for impotence took the form of radioactive “bougies” – wax rods inserted into the urethra – and even athletic supporters containing a layer of radium-impregnated fabric. A popular alternate treatment called the Radioendocrinator was a booklet that contained a number of cards coated in radium, which were worn inside the undergarments at night. (The Radioendocrinator’s inventor died of bladder cancer in 1949.)

8. In Health Spas

Radium and radon health spas took off in the 20s and 30s, where women and men alike could stop in for a long relaxing soak in radium mud, rinse with radium water and leave soft and glowing, thanks to a thorough application of radium cream. Radium mines and caves also doubled as “healing rooms,” if patrons were willing to travel. At least one radium spa is still in operation in the United States, as are a few in Japan in Europe.

9. In Clocks and Watches

Between 1917 and 1926, during the height of radium's heyday, the U.S. Radium Corporation employed more than a hundred workers (mostly women) to paint watch and clock faces with their patented Undark luminous paint. As many as 70 women were hired to mix the Undark paint, comprised of glue, water and radium powder. Workers were taught to shape paintbrushes with their mouths to maintain a fine point, and some used the material to paint their nails and teeth. While U.S. Radium's labor force were all but encouraged to ingest the dangerous mixture, management and research scientists who were aware of the danger carefully avoided any exposure themselves.

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Five Radium Girls sued U.S. Radium in a case that initiated labor safety standards and workers' rights. There are no records of how many of U.S. Radium's employees suffered from anemia, inexplicable bone fractures, bleeding gums and eventually, necrosis of the jaw. Though many of the factory's workers became sick, cases of death by radiation sickness were initially attributed to syphilis. (It's believed that this was an attempt to smear the girls' reputations, and that medical investigators hired by U.S. Radium were paid to withhold their findings.)

The Radium Girls' case was settled in 1928, putting a swift end to shaping paintbrushes with the mouth and open containers of radium paint. Though radium was still used in clocks until the 1960s, new cases of acute radiation syndrome in dial painters came to a screeching halt, and soon after, so did the popularity of radium-containing products and toys. The former U.S. Radium manufacturing plant is now a Superfund site.

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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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