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Galeria de Léo Pinheiro via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Blue People

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Galeria de Léo Pinheiro via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There have always been tales of blue people in mythology, popular fiction, and in the news. Yes, blue people exist here and there in the real world.

Two conditions cause people to live and be (literally) blue. Methemoglobinemia is a condition in which the blood carries less-than-normal amounts of oxygen, making the blood appear blue. Argyria is caused by the ingestion of silver, usually for medicinal purposes. The effects of silver ingestion are permanent, and if the consumption of silver continues long enough, can be fatal.
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Methemoglobinemia can be acquired through use of certain drugs, or can be inherited through the presence of recessive genes. There have been reports of blue families or tribes through history that could be explained by inherited Methemoglobinemia. The best-documented of these is the Blue Fugates of Kentucky.

200bluepeople.jpgMartin Fugate emigrated from France in 1820 and married Elizabeth Smith, a Kentucky native. Apparently, both had the very rare recessive gene for Methemoglobinemia. Four of their seven children were blue! They lived in an isolated area of eastern Kentucky and their children grew up and married those who lived close to them, meaning a very few families in the area, or even their own cousins. One Fugate son married his mother's younger sister. Over several generations of intermarriage within these same few clans, the recessive genes were preserved and the Fugates came to be known as the Blue Fugates. The exact reason for their color wasn't known until medical tests were conducted in the 1960s. In the early 80s, only three blue members of the Fugate family were reported surviving.

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Before the advent of antibiotics, silver nitrate and colloidal silver were used as antiseptics. Captain Fred Walters was prescribed silver as a remedy for locomotor ataxia, a degenerative neural disease. It  turned his skin so blue that by 1891, he was exhibiting himself at side shows for profit. At the time, the poisonous effects of silver were unknown. Walters continued to take silver to maintain his profitable blue coloring until his heart gave out in 1923. He had essentially died of silver poisoning.
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Because of "products containing silver, which have flooded the market in past years", the state of Florida posted a warning that silver is unsafe to consume. Accompanying the warning are these photos of a victim of argyria, shown beside a healthy man to highlight the difference in color. Online information on the safety and efficacy of colloidal silver supplements varies from "no side effects at all" to "unsafe and ineffective", depending on where the funding comes from. The FDA says such products are not judged to be safe.
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Rosemary Jacobs began using nose drops containing colloidal silver when she was 11 years old. Within a few years, her skin had turned blue. Despite discontinuing the use of colloidal silver, Jacobs face remained blue for decades, as particles of silver were embedded in her skin and organs. In the 70s (after this picture was taken), Jacobs underwent dermabrasion treatments, which removed the top layers of her skin. She now has blotchy pink skin. Jacobs is campaigning against colloidal silver dietary supplements because of what happened to her.
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Paul Karason began using colloidal silver 15 years ago. He believes his blue skin was caused by rubbing the concoction on his skin to treat dermatitis, and not by drinking it. Karason, who is sometimes referred to as "Papa Smurf" continues to drink colloidal silver as a cure-all. See a video report here.
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Montana Libertarian Stan Jones was an unsuccessful candidate for the US Senate in 2002 and in 2006. He is also a victim of argyria. Jones began using colloidal silver he made himself in anticipation of antibiotic shortages predicted from the Y2K scare. He continues to take colloidal silver and believes in its health benefits.

There are other conditions that can cause the skin to turn blue, usually due to lack of oxygen, but serious cyanosis must be treated immediately and is not a condition people can just "live with". And then there are people who go the extra mile to appear blue.
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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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May 23, 2017
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