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Catching Up With The Flu: 20th Century Pandemics

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As panic mounts over the increasing number of swine flu cases, it looks like the world is ending, with a sniffle and sneeze. But this certainly isn't the first time humanity has had to gird itself against the threat of pandemic and, luckily for all of us, lived to tell about it. Here's a little background on four 20th century outbreaks.

1. The Spanish Flu of 1918: Don't Blame the Spanish

The absolute worst flu pandemic in recent memory was the so-called Spanish flu outbreak of 1918. Somewhere between 20 and 50 million people died from the Spanish Flu "“ more than the number of people who died in World War I.


But don't blame the Spanish. In fact, the virus was likely spread by US soldiers shipped off to fight in World War I "“ the first recorded case of the flu came on March 11, 1918, at Fort Riley, Kansas. Within a week, the virus had made the rounds through the unsanitary military base "“ 522 men reported to the camp infirmary, all suffering from the same illness. The flu moved on from there, primarily through military channels, popping up all over the southern Eastern Seaboard, in California, and other states throughout the Union, infecting 28 percent of Americans. Military transport ships then became floating Petri dishes, incubating the disease and then releasing it on arrival in France. From there, the flu ravaged the rest of Europe, already in a weakened state after years of devastating war. And this particular strain of the flu was terrifying "“ sufferers often succumbed to total respiration failure within hours, essentially suffocating to death in the fluid that filled their lungs.

It was also puzzling "“ where most flu strains affected the weakest members of the population, the elderly, the very young, and people already ill of health, this flu largely affected healthy young people. The fact that a war was on also contributed to the rapid spread of the virus, in part due to the fact that affected countries didn't acknowledge the pandemic.

The Spanish flu got its name from the fact that Spanish papers were the first ones to report that millions of their people were dying from the flu; other countries, on both sides of the Allied and Central Powers lines and though similarly affected by the virus, kept mum for fear of revealing a weakness to the enemy.

Moreover, the war effort left the US and other countries without sufficient medical care "“ many trained doctors and nurses had gone to the front.

Waves of the virus broke on US shores, each time killing more and more people and prompting drastic measures. In Philadelphia, according to a contemporary New York Times article, courts were adjourned, theaters were closed, churches asked to suspend services, football games cancelled, even the sale of liquor prohibited. But other communities were less stringent in their attempts to curtail the illness and more people died.

The flu also inspired, much in the same way the plague allegedly inspired that "pocket full of posies" rhyme, a creepy schoolgirl jump rope rhyme:

"I had a little bird
And its name was Enza
I opened the window
And in-flew-Enza"

After spending several long months exhausting the population, the virus disappeared before it could even be isolated. It's been since identified as a "pure" avian virus, meaning that it adapted from a bird-based illness to possess the necessary features for easy human to human transmission.

2. The Asian Flu of 1957: Science in Action

flu.jpgBy 1957, scientists had a better handle on the whole vaccine, immunology, epidemiology thing, so when the first cases of Asian Flu popped up in China in February 1957, they identified it quickly. But vaccines for the virus weren't available until August 1957, giving the disease several months to spread across the globe. By fall, every continent, every region had seen cases of the virus.


The virus killed more than 2 million people worldwide, 70,000 people in the US alone. In the first wave of the disease, which crossed the globe in the summer and fall of 1957, the illness also proved particularly virulent among school children, young adults, and pregnant women. In the second wave, which hit in the early part of 1958, elderly people were its victims.

Unlike during the Spanish flu pandemic, US medical personnel were somewhat more proactive in clamping down on the Asian flu outbreak. Several major networks used the relatively new medium of television to quickly distribute information on how to deal with the flu: One program featured actors demonstrating symptoms of the flu, animated cartoons explaining how vaccinations work, and sober discussions of where the Asian flu came from and what could and could not be done about it ("the new miracle or wonder drugs," antibiotics, the program cautions, could not be used to treat the flu).

Elsewhere, communities jumped into action: At the University of Illinois, for example, health officers set up 336 hospital cots in an ice rink to prepare for the "worst case scenario."

This virus petered out within a year, and while deadly, had little of the devastating effect of the Spanish flu.

3. Hong Kong Flu-ey of 1968

This pandemic was considered more mild than the two that preceded it; around 1 million people are estimated to have died as a result to the pandemic, however, this flu spread more slowly than the previous two, perhaps owing to a resistance built up from the previous pandemic. The virus was first noticed in China in mid-July; by August, more than 500,000 cases in Hong Kong alone were reported.

The Hong Kong flu was also one of the many unfortunate side effects of the war in Vietnam: Though the virus was first spotted in China, soldiers returning from the Vietnamese front brought the disease home. In three months, the Hong Kong flu had made its way from California across America, proving lethal primarily for the elderly and young children. Europe and the UK were hit by the pandemic, but were largely unfazed: In the UK, for example, death from flu and flu-related illness was actually lower that year than it had been the previous year.

4. Swine Flu the First, 1976: The Pandemic That Wasn't

Scary as it is now, the first time swine flu appeared in the States was more of a whimper than a bang.

The virus first popped up in early February 1976, when a 19-year-old private at Fort Dix, New Jersey, reported to his superior that he felt ill and tired, although not so bad as to skip the training hike later that day. He died within 24 hours. It was echoes of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic all over again.

An autopsy revealed that the young soldier had contracted swine flu; shortly after, other soldiers were admitted to the hospital with the same symptoms and officials soon found that 500 people at the base were infected with the virus, though they hadn't become ill.

ford_getting_swine_flu_shot.jpgUpon hearing about the potential pandemic, President Gerald Ford ordered the mobilization of a nationwide vaccination program, at a cost of $135 million in 1976 dollars "“ that'd be roughly $505 million now. After the first reported infection in February, the virus pretty much laid low for the next few months.


In October 1976, health officials, armed with a vaccination and a healthy dose of scaremongering, took to the streets. Propaganda about the potential pandemic was more frightening than the actual thing and possibly even more frightening than the news reports this time around.

Health officials tried hard to terrify the populace into getting flu shots with an ominous voice intoning "a swine flu epidemic may be coming" over images of people lying in hospital sickbeds. It worked: More than 40 million Americans, a quarter of the population, got their flu shots.

However, that may have not been the best idea "“ while the flu itself only killed one person, the vaccine killed more than 30. Within two months after the mass inoculations began, 500 people came down with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a paralyzing nerve disease.

This, combined with the fact that the prophesied epidemic never really materialized, didn't exactly help Ford's flagging political career: While the dismal economic state probably had more to do with it, Ford lost re-election that year.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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