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Dead Rabbits & Other Historical Pregnancy Tests

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In the ubiquitous Baby Mama trailer, Tina Fey looks at a used home pregnancy test that mocks her with a foreboding blue "NO" in the results box. Although the mock factor is optional, home pregnancy tests can lay it out straight: YES or NO. Whether the results are determined by blue lines, a plus or minus sign, or the plain words, the "pee on a stick" method is a popular way to discover if one is with child. Isn't it interesting that one of life's greatest achievements (new life) can be diagnosed by one of life's most common routines (peeing, albeit on a prophetic stick)? Also as fascinating, this dichotomy existed long before the FDA approved the first home pregnancy test in the 1970s.

Knocked up like an Egyptian

The earliest recorded "peeing on a stick" test comes from those innovative Egyptians. In 1350 B.C., in between building pyramids and wrapping sarcophagi, someone produced a document describing how to determine pregnancy. You guessed it; a speculating woman must urinate on wheat and barley seeds, of course! The ancient papyrus read, "If the barley grows, it means a male child. If the wheat grows, it means a female child. If both do not grow, she will not bear at all." In 1963, testing this theory found it 70 percent accurate, as the urine of pregnant women contains elevated levels of estrogen that may promote growth in these grains. As far as the gender guessing, that was Ra having a chuckle.

The Sample is in the Chamber Pot

Starting in the Middle Ages and up until the 17th century, "piss prophets" diagnosed many different conditions and diseases based on the color of urine. Since proven unscientific and often incorrect, this medical practice known as a "Uroscopy" often referred to a handy Uroscopy Wheel to help with diagnosis. A 1552 European document described pregnancy urine as a "clear pale lemon color leaning toward off-white, having a cloud on its surface." The aptly named prophets employed another pregnancy test where they mixed urine and wine and watched the alcohol reacting with certain present proteins. In yet another dubious 17th-century test, a ribbon was dipped in a woman's urine and burned. If the smell nauseated her, baby was on the way!

The Mouse Died

Fast-forward to the early 20th century, when scientists first discovered the role hormones played in female reproduction, they identified a specific hormone found only in pregnant woman, human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). In the 1920s and 30s, to recognize the presence of hCG, which indicated pregnancy early on, doctors injected urine into an immature mouse, rat, frog, or even a rabbit. If a woman were pregnant, the test subject would go into heat despite its immaturity. To announce their status, women euphemized, "The mouse died" or "I killed the Easter bunny," because killing and dissecting the lab animal confirmed the results. A common misconception arose that if the animal died after injection, it pointed to a positive pregnancy test. But in actuality, all tested specimens were disposed of, much to the chagrin of animal rights activists. This test was known as the A-Z test, named after the founding scientists, Selmar Ascheim and Bernhard Zondek.

To e.p.t.and Beyond

In the 1970s, as a result of the sexual revolution and the presence of reproductive choices, Wampole's two-hour, urine-based pregnancy test became available only to doctors and technicians. The test could be done early on, but the packaging pictured an authoritative man wearing a lab coat, implying that this test was not intended for home use. Other intimidating tools in the box included: test tubes, a plastic rack, three bottles of chemical solutions, a small funnel, pipettes, and a saline solution. What a way to create an atmosphere encouraging relaxation and sample giving!

ept.jpgIn 1977, the e.p.t. (which originally stood for "early pregnancy test," and is now the more comforting "error proof test") became the first home pregnancy test on the U.S. market. The test took two hours and was more accurate when dealing with positive results. In 1978, an issue of Mademoiselle described the original e.p.t.: "For your $10, you get pre-measured ingredients consisting of a vial of purified water, a test tube containing, among other things, sheep red blood cells"¦as well as a medicine dropper and clear plastic support for the test tube, with an angled mirror at the bottom."

Home pregnancy tests evolved to the stick we know now and are still evolving. In 2003, Clearblue Easy's digital pregnancy test ushered in a new generation of home pregnancy tests. In place of a thin blue line, the indicator screen says either "pregnant" or "not pregnant." But if still skeptical, one can always go into a doctor's office for a blood serum test for a definitive answer. Or maybe he has some barley or wheat that have a second opinion.

Sara Newton is an occasional contributor to mental_floss.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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