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Body Odor Through the Ages: A Brief History of Deodorant

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I got my first stick of deodorant as a preteen. It was Teen Spirit and made me smell like baby powder and berries. From the first swipe I loved it "“ it called me TEEN "“ and have continued to love this special product that keeps me so fresh and so clean. I wouldn't call it an obsession "“ I reserve that for my books and shoes "“ but these days I keep at least a dozen different kinds of deodorant and antiperspirants on hand. Unfortunately, not everyone shares my love of smelling good. On many occasions throughout history, things have gotten downright funky.

Being stinky and human evolution

When we lived in caves and had just figured out the whole standing upright thing, we were less concerned about body odor. Put simply, humans stunk. Anthropologists now believe that our funky selves helped keep us from being some predator's dinner. Our scent was so rank that the animal about to eat us would actually recoil in horror at the smell and would move on to eat something less repulsive. Now that's a defense mechanism.

Ancient Egyptians

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When they weren't building pyramids, the ancient Egyptians were working hard at masking their own stench. They invented the perfumed bath and would follow it up by applying a liberal amount of perfume to their underarms. Egyptians also tried using carob, incense, and even porridge as deodorant. Women would place globs of scented wax on their heads that would slowly melt throughout the day, spreading the pleasing scent as well as masking the not so pleasant. Messy, but effective.

Ancient Romans and Greeks

The ancient Greeks took a page from the Egyptians, constantly bathing and dousing themselves in perfume. Greek poet Homer once said that good hosts offered their guests baths and aromatic oils. Romans were so fanatical about smelling good that they not only took baths in perfume, they soaked their clothes in it, doused their horses in it, and even perfumed their household pets.

The Middle Ages

Things took a turn for the stank during the Middle Ages, when the church decided that being naked was bad. Even in the bath. So people all but stopped cleaning themselves. Those with the money for it tried to cover the stink by using perfume, a practice that continued well into the 19th century. Those without money just remained fragrant.

Mums the word

The first trademarked deodorant "“ Mum "“ came out in 1888. Created by an unknown Philadelphia inventor, Mum was a paste applied to the underarms. It was soon followed by Everdry, the first effective antiperspirant. Everdry was an aluminum chloride solution that was dabbed on with a cotton swab to less than desirable results. Everdry took forever to dry, was messy, and had a nasty habit of stinging the user and eating through clothes. But hey, at least you weren't sweating. In the mid 1950s, inspired by the ball point pen, the first roll on (Ban) was released. Ten years later, the first aerosol (Right Guard) launched a multi-billion dollar industry.

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[1971 Right Guard ad courtesy of my Rear in Sears.]

Today, about 95% of Americans use deodorant. Whether you wear roll on, use a crystal, take an internal deodorant pill (does that really work?) or even make your own home concoction, just know that the rest of us truly appreciate it.

Stefanie Fontanez is an occasional contributor to mentalfloss.com. Her last story was about the plague.

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