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The Quick 10: 10 Presidential Ailments of a Very Specific Nature

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So"¦ this is a really weird Quick 10 topic. But let me explain how that came about. I was going to do an article about Presidential ailments and injuries in general "“ you know, we're all aware that FDR had polio, but who knew Herbert Hoover had a hatchet injury? That kind of thing. But as I started researching, I started noticing that a large number of Presidents had problems"¦ erm, south of the border. So it sort of naturally just evolved. I promise you, I didn't just wake up one morning and think "“ "You know what I feel like researching today? Thomas Jefferson's constipation. That sounds like fun."

TJEFF1. Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson suffered from constipation, diarrhea, and boils of the arse. Apparently in 1818, Old T.J. developed boils on his bum following a mineral bath. Apparently, his felt the urge to discuss his excessive excrement problem with people, because there are several letters from Jefferson to people that describe his condition in detail. In 1803, he wrote to Benjamin Rush that he had diarrhea "after having dined moderately on fish." Charming. One very old report even says that his cause of death was chronic diarrhea.

2. James K. Polk. Polk had "debilitating" diarrhea, which he also described in detail in his diary: "Thursday, 29th June, 1848. Before sun-rise this morning I was taken with a violent diarrhea accompanied with severe pain. I was very soon prostrated by it." It was often so bad that he couldn't eat or sleep. As a youngster he had urinary stones, and it's thought that the operation may have left him sterile since he never had children.

3. James Garfield "“ anal fissures. I can't find a whole lot of information about President Garfield's anal fissures, but I will take CBS at their word.

4. William Howard Taft "“ in 1902, he underwent surgery for an abscess in his perineum.

First of all: Ouch. Second: Ew.

5. FDR "“ Hemorrhoids. Harold Ickes, the secretary of the interior, kept a diary that included periodic updates on FDR's health. On May 17, 1941, he noted that the hemorrhoids and the resulting bleeding were so bad that the President required blood transfusions.

6. President Bush (W., not H.W.) He suffered from hemorrhoids during his tenure in the National Guard; he has also had some cases of colonic polyps.

ike7. Dwight D. Eisenhower. On September 24, 1955, the President had his first heart attack. The doctors did their thing, and then, eager to report the good condition of Eisenhower, held a press conference. During the press conference, one of the doctors casually mentioned that Eisenhower had "Had a good bowel movement." Eisenhower later wrote that he was totally mortified when he heard about that. However, he ended up needing subsequent operations for "intestinal obstruction."

8. Jimmy Carter. Mr. Peanut had hemorrhoids, bad. And he talked about them quite a bit. In fact, Carter wrote in his book that in 1978, Anwar Sedat has announced that his "good friend Jimmy" had hemorrhoids and apparently appealed for all Egyptians to pray for him, because he was a good man who promoted peace. The day after, Carter wrote, the pain went away for the first time in weeks. He said he thought about issuing a statement thanking everyone for their prayers, but then decided against it, figuring that the public had already heard way too much about his ass (he said "ailment"). However, he said, "I've never received a better Christmas gift."

9. Ronald Reagan had several rear-related issues during his second term as President. In July, 1985, he had cancerous polyps removed from his colon. Then, a couple of years later, he underwent another surgery to treat an enlarged prostate.

10. George Washington may have been sterile as well. Although Martha had four children by her former husband, she and George were unable to have any at all. Apparently George thought that if he ever married someone younger, he might be able to have kids. But I don't know if this really holds water "“ Martha Custis was only 27 when he married her. Lots of historians think he may have been sterile by a case of the mumps. Ironically, the fact that he could have no kids is partially what made people back him for the Presidency "“ no children meant there would be no heirs to automatically assume his title when he died.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”