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Hooked on Tonics: Snake Oils, Hangover Cures, and Other Questionable Medicine

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Stick Out Your Tounge
Snakes, you just can't trust "˜em. First they go around getting us humans kicked out of paradise, then they (or, rather, their oil) become synonymous with quacks and patent medicine. Snake fat, you see, was once believed to have curative powers and no snake fat solution was more curative than "Stanley's Snake Oil," the brainchild of cowboy Clark "The Rattlesnake King" Stanley. The King made a name for himself hawking his wares at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, where he dressed in flamboyant western togs and convinced thousands of customers that his oil could cure everything from mosquito bites to rheumatism. Despite the snake oil's miraculous reputation, Stanley was careful to point out that it was for external use only. Good thing. When the U.S. government finally ran some tests on the stuff in 1917, they found it contained a few ingredients you wouldn't want down the hatch, including: mineral oil, used to (roughly) cure constipation; camphor oil, which is used primarily as embalming fluid; and turpentine, a key ingredient in paint stripper and Vap-o-rub. As for the promised oil of rattler, that snake Stanley had used easier-to-acquire beef fat instead.

Turn Your Head and Cough

Hairballs aren't so pretty when they turn up on the rug, but during the Renaissance these frankly gross gastrointestinal phenomena were prized for their powers of healing and protection. While we're familiar with the wet, stringy hairballs kitty leaves behind, the pharmecuetical version, called bezoars, were more like pearls and were formed in the stomachs of goats or other cud-chewing animals. People believed these glassy masses of compressed hair and food could suck poison or even rabies out of the body. Members of the Medici family, who controlled much of Europe at the time, carried them around obsessively, though not without reason, as poisoning members of the Medici family was something of a continental sport. The bezoar lives on in today's medical literature, but mostly in the psychiatry section. Doctors occasionally have to remove them from the stomachs of people who obsessively chew their hair.

I'm Not A Doctor But I Play One On T.V.
Part of the fun of selling patent medicine was becoming a major celebrity. Or, at least as much of a celebrity as was possible in the pre-mass media 19th century. The seven daughters of former preacher Fletcher Sutherland found their ticket to stardom when they started selling a mixture of vegetable oil and alcohol, marketed under the name Seven Sutherland Sisters Hair Grower. With a collective hair length of 37 feet, the girls were their own best advertisement and they toured the country for 38 years, eventually becoming some of the best-known women in America and earning some $2.75 million. Not even death could stop this public relations steamroller. When the youngest sister, Naomi, died in 1893, the others simply replaced her with a well-maned actress. But, as anyone who's watched "E! True Hollywood Story" knows, fame is a harsh mistress. By the 1920's the sisters were broke. Promise of a film version of their lives brought them to Hollywood, but after the deal fell through and another sister died the others were forced to leave her ashes in California, unable to afford a burial.

Veghospital.jpgTake Two Pigs And Call Me In The Morning
Folk medicine in Ireland relied heavily on the belief that you could magically transfer illness from a person to an animal (usually a pig or a donkey). These "transference cures" were especially popular for curing mumps and whooping cough. When Irish immigrants settled in America, they brought their belief in transference with them. In Appalachia, for instance, people once believed that the surest cure for a crick in the neck was to rub your neck on a tree a hog had just rubbed against.

It's All In Your Head
Folk medicine wasn't just about inventing cures; sometimes practitioners went that extra mile and invented a whole disease. Take "white liver," a disease that supposedly caused white spots to appear on said organ, but who's external symptoms affected organs of a different kind. Sufferers of the white liver, which were primarily women, were said to have insatiable sex drives. In the 19th century American South, women who had survived more than one husband were sometimes known as "white livered widders," the idea being that they had, in effect, pleased their husbands into and early grave. Although Americans have pretty much replaced white liver with nymphomania, the term is still popular in Jamaica. Unfortunately (or fortunately) for victims of white liver, there is no known cure.

Feel better about your HMO yet? There's more info on questionable medical practises where this came from. Check out mental_floss volume 3, issue 5.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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