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10 Snack Foods Originally Sold as Medicines

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istock

There was a time when you could have subsisted on graham crackers, Moxie, and Goo-Goo Clusters and called it a healthy diet. In fact, a lot of foods and beverages we consider snack items today were once marketed as medicines or tonics to a gullible public.

1. COCA-COLA 

The original intent of Coca-Cola, as you probably know, was a health drink. Created by John Pemberton, it was sold for 5 cents at soda fountains because people thought carbonated beverages would increase their wellness. Pemberton's company also sold Pemberton's Indian Queen Hair Dye and Pemberton's Globe Flower Cough Syrup.

2. GRAHAM CRACKERS

These snacks were invented in 1829 by Reverend Sylvester Graham, who felt the bland food was a perfect prescription for those prone to excessive amounts of "self-abuse." Apparently dry crackers would bore the sexual appetite right out of you.

3. CORN FLAKES

OK, it might be a stretch to call corn flakes a snack food, but I'm sure I'm not alone in downing a bowl of cereal when I want a little something. John Harvey Kellogg was looking for something to improve the diet of hospital patients and decided that corn flakes were a great bread substitute that helped digestion (and curbed masturbation). His brother, William Keith Kellogg, later added sugar to the flakes and started a company to sell them.

4. GOO-GOO CLUSTERS

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

During the Great Depression, these treats were marketed to consumers as a "nourishing lunch for a nickel." Sure, I employ that theory on candy all of the time: peanuts are protein, chocolate has calcium, marshmallow has ... marshmallow.

5. FIG NEWTONS

Although Fig Newtons are marketed as "fruit and cake" these days, back in 1892 they were considered digestive aids. A lot of doctors thought that digestion problems were the root of all kinds of other illnesses, so you see a lot of digestive aids from that era. They were originally fig rolls instead of the square pastry we're familiar with now.

6. MOXIE

Moxie was one of the first mass-produced soft drinks commercially available. It was created sometime around 1876 by a doctor whose friend, Lieutenant Moxie, was using the extract of a South American plant to prevent paralysis, "softening of the brain," nervousness and insomnia. The good doctor took Moxie's plant extract and stuck it in soda water, calling it "Beverage Moxie Nerve Food."

7. HEATH BAR

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Heath bars could just as well have been called Health Bars—the use of the best milk chocolate, almonds, butter, and pure cane sugar was thought to pep a person up.

8. 7-UP

This is probably not a big shocker for you, since many of us still use the miracle tonic to soothe an upset stomach. Originally called "Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda," it contained lithium citrate, so it really was a mood-stabilizing drink. The drink was introduced in 1929; lithium wouldn't be removed from the product until 1948.

9. DR PEPPER 

This soda has a similar story. Like Coke and 7-Up, it was sold as a brain tonic and pick-me-up and was available at drugstores to cure what ails ya.

10. MCVITIE'S DIGESTIVE BISCUITS 

Calling cookies "digestives" started with McVitie's back in 1892. Because the biscuit contained a high amount of sodium bicarbonate, the inventor theorized that eating the biscuits after a large meal would be beneficial to one's health. They're still called digestives, but McVitie's now prints a disclaimer on them that says, "The ingredients in this biscuit do not contain any substances that assist digestion."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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