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A Brief History of Dubious Dieting

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Most of the world seems to think that America invented obesity sometime in the last century, but the truth is, fat has always been a part of life (witness Hatshepsut, one of the great ancient Egyptian queens who reigned in the 15th century BC—despite her svelte sarcophagus, modern archeologists believe that she was pretty obese and may have suffered from diabetes).


So it stands to reason that dieting has been around just as long.

Some historians credit William the Conqueror with starting the first fad diet. Having grown too fat to ride his horse, William went on a liquid diet in 1087—or, rather, a liquor diet, since all he did was drink booze. The story might be apocryphal—William, still fat, actually died after falling from his horse and there was no word on whether he was drunk at the time—but it's a good one, and it sets the tone for the next 1000+ years of dieting. Throughout history, people have been looking for some kind of magic that will allow one to eat and live as one pleases, but still look emaciatedly gorgeous. And they've come up with some pretty dubious theories that somehow took hold in the public consciousness and became fads. Here are a few of our favorites.

Location, Location, Location

"The Causes and Effects of Corpulence" was a treatise penned in 1727 by one Thomas Short, in which he observed that larger people were more likely to live near swampy areas. His advice? Fat people should move to more arid climes.

Improbable Side Effects

The namesake of the graham cracker—ironically now an integral part of that deliciously fattening treat, the "˜smore—was a Presbyterian minister who claimed that overeating could not only make you fat, it could make you lecherous, too. In the 1830s, Sylvester Graham ran health retreats for like-minded parishioners featuring a strict meat-free, incredibly bland diet.

An Early Diet Guru

In 1864, William Banting pioneered the "I lost 50 pounds—ask me how" phenomenon by writing a pamphlet describing how he lost 50 pounds by eating a diet of lean meats, dry toast, vegetables and fruits. Dieting thereafter was referred to as "banting" by folks in the British Isles well into the 20th century.

Chew Yourself Thin

Horace Fletcher, a turn of the century San Francisco art dealer, became known as the Great Masticator after he claimed he lost more than 40 pounds by chewing his food until it was essentially liquefied and spitting out all the bits that weren't. Fletcher's scheme became incredibly popular—novelist Henry James and industry titan John D. Rockefeller were reportedly fans, as was John Harvey Kellogg. Kellogg, of the cereal fame, was a nutrition and health nut who ran a sanitarium in Michigan, where he encouraged his visitors to "Fletcherize" with a little song he wrote called "Chew Chew."

The Parasite Diet

In the early part of the 20th century, the weight loss industry allegedly found a tiny little helper in the form of a tiny little parasite—the noble tapeworm. According to product advertisements of the day, tapeworms were being sold in pill form as a weight loss tool. While whether or not those pills actually contained a real live tapeworm is certainly debatable, however, there is evidence that jockeys, who frequently needed to lose a lot of weight fast, would try to induce tapeworms. Another favorite weight loss tool of the Lilliputian equestrians: Burying themselves in piles of horse manure, which acted as a kind of natural sauna.

Introducing the Calorie

In 1918, Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters introduced a new word to the world lexicon—"calorie" (may she be forever cured for it). Peters' book, Diet and Health, With a Key to Calories, which helpfully included a phonetic spelling of the word "calorie," as so many people were unfamiliar with it, sold more than 2 million copies and established calorie-counting as the framework of a good health. This diet regime wasn't particularly dubious, but it did lend a potentially dangerous new tool to those looking for a way to quantify and reduce their food intake. Case in point: The Scarsdale Diet of 1979, a strict 700-calorie a day diet that works—because you're starving.

The Goldfish Diet

goldfish.jpgOK, this one wasn't so much about weight loss as it was fame gain, but in 1939, it was a fad that swept the nation. Like most good things, it all started with a bet—a Harvard University undergrad won $10 after swallowing an innocent fishy. The story spread from there, prompting a countrywide goldfish slaughter. Goldfish swallowing became so popular that not only were pet stores running out of the indigestible comestibles, but the New York Times published warnings from doctors that swallowing goldfish, which are known to carry tapeworms and other parasites, could be very harmful to one's health.

The Nicotine Diet

By the middle of the 20th century, dieting had become such a major economic, social and cultural force in the Western world that cigarette companies, not wanting to miss the money boat, jumped on board promoting cigarettes as a weight-loss tool. It's a belief that persists today—ask any supermodel.

The Master Cleanse

In the 1940s, nutrition guru Stanley Burroughs created the Master Cleanse, a fast during which the dieter subsists solely on a mixture of cayenne pepper, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, maple syrup and water. The Master Cleanse is still popular today, especially among anorexics and aspiring anorexics, despite the fact that most nutritionists and doctors say that "detoxing" is a nonsensical and potentially harmful idea.

The Sleeping Beauty Diet

Then there's the Sleeping Beauty Diet, a regime that allows the dieter to literally sleep off the pounds while under heavy sedation for several days. Elvis was reportedly a fan of that one, right about the time when he was having a little trouble squeezing into those trademark white jump suits, as was a character in the landmark beach read, Valley of the Dolls.

The Monotony Diets

The 20th century also brought us back to a concept allegedly pioneered by William the Conqueror—the single food or drink diet. There's the Grapefruit Diet, which alleges that eating a lot of grapefruit and drinking a lot of grapefruit juice, in conjunction, of course, with a very low-calorie diet, is the way to weigh less; the Cabbage Soup Diet, which is said to cause serious gas with a side of nausea; the Popcorn Diet, which is pretty much undercut by all the tasty things one puts on popcorn to make it palatable; and the Chocolate Diet, which, though tempting, is just plain silliness.

Memorable Dieting Paraphernalia

fat-soap.jpgAnd let's not forget about the gadgets that went along with these suspect food fads, like the Vision-Dieter Glasses, which made food look unappealing, or the Mini-Fork system, which encouraged people to eat smaller portions by supplying them with—you guessed it—smaller forks. Or how about slimming soaps, popular in the 1930s, which promised dieters that they could just wash the fat away? And then there's the perennially popular vibrating machine, which promised to melt off pounds by a few minutes of intense body vibration—and which is actually enjoying a comeback now at gadgetry stores like Brookstone.


That's just the barest tip of the billion-dollar dieting iceberg, and we know you readers have heard of quite a few more weird, wild and patently unbelievable diet fads. So let's hear it—what's the craziest diet or weight loss tool you've ever heard of, or possibly even tried?

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technology
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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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