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Vaseline: The Miracle Jelly Turns 140

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It's difficult to find anything, especially a commercial product, that hasn't really changed in 140 years. But Vaseline, that miracle product that is used for everything from softening tough skin to keeping beauty queens smiling, may just fit the bill. Vaseline turned up on the market in 1870—and the world has been just a bit softer, maybe a bit greasier since.

From Rod Wax to Vaseline

Vaseline was the brainchild of England-born, Brooklyn-raised chemist Robert Chesebrough. In 1859, at the tender age of 22, Chesebrough decided to turn his back on his father's dry goods business and seek his fortune in the nascent oil industry. Young Chesebrough made his way down to Titusville, Pennsylvania, to check out a working oil well. While there, however, Chesebrough made a rather different discovery: At the time, men working on oil rigs were plagued by what they called "rod wax," a kind of gooey jelly that would get into machinery and cause it to seize up. But rod wax wasn't all bad: Chesebrough, clearly a very observant guy, noticed that the workers often smeared the substance on burns and rough skin and that it appeared to help in the healing process. Intrigued, he brought a bit of the stuff home.

Chesebrough spent the next 10 years experimenting on it—and himself.

With his background as a chemist, Chesebrough ultimately refined the rod wax down to the clear, smeary petroleum jelly we now know today. All the while, he was supposedly using himself as a guinea pig and applying the goo to self-inflicted wounds to track their healing process.

Both Chesebrough and the miracle product survived, and in 1870, he began marketing his Vaseline (supposedly a mash-up of the German word for water, vasser, and the Greek word for olive oil, "˜e'laion or πετρέλαιο). He patented the product in the US in 1872 and formed the Chesebrough Manufacturing Company, based out of Brooklyn, in 1875. According to lore, however, Chesebrough was at first unable to find any pharmacists willing to take a chance on the weird, greasy stuff. So he traveled the countryside, snake oil salesman style, preaching the magic of Vaseline.

It worked, probably because Vaseline was kind of magic: People used it for everything from rescuing chapped skin and protecting baby bottoms from diaper rash to preserving eggs. Long-distance swimmers rubbed it on themselves to save body heat; American Commander Robert Peary brought Vaseline with him on his arctic adventures because it was one of the few things that wouldn't freeze.

By the late 1880s, Vaseline was selling nationwide at a rate of a jar a minute. Chesebrough expanded the business first to Canada, then to Britain and its colonies; by 1911, the Chesebrough Manufacturing Company had factories churning out jars of Vaseline in Europe and Africa.

Meanwhile, Chesebrough's faith in his own product never, ever flagged: According to posthumous reports, he swallowed three spoonfuls of it every day, though for what particular ailment remains a mystery. Once, when he contracted pleurisy in his 50s, he had his nurse rub him down with Vaseline every day—he, of course, recovered. He died at the age of 96.

Vaseline lived on: In 1955, the Chesebrough Manufacturing Company merged with Pond's, the makers of popular cold creams, to become Chesebrough-Pond's; 32 years later, in 1987, the company sold out to massive personal care company Unilever.

The Incredible, Sometimes Edible Vaseline

Part of Vaseline's magic is its many, many uses. But that Vaseline is virtually unrivaled in the sphere of skin-softening is already well-known—here are a few of Vaseline's other, probably less well-known uses:

Some say that using a coating of Vaseline can make eyelashes grow longer and thicker; speaking of eyelashes, the first modern mascara was a mixture of coal dust and Vaseline, whipped up in 1913 by a chemist named Thomas Williams, for his sister Mabel—leading to the foundation of cosmetics firm Maybelline.
A liberal coating of Vaseline can help prevent frostbite in chickens' combs.

One can use Vaseline to grease up before a fight—making one's face too slippery to land a punch. (Pictured: Vitali Klitschko.) In 2009, the Ultimate Fighting Championship world was rocked by allegations that one fighter won victory after illegally greasing up between rounds.
Rubbing Vaseline on the edges of your Halloween pumpkin can keep it from rotting, at least for a little while.
Smearing it on a camera lens achieves a cool, soft-focus effect, somewhat reminiscent of 1970s soft-core porn.
Now illegal, Vaseline used to be one of the things that a pitcher could use to give a spitball its spit.
Stephon Marbury, former New York Knick who may or may not have lost his mind, used YouTube to tout the benefits of Vaseline on a sore throat. He ate it.

Vaseline as Art

Perhaps the earliest known mention of "Vaseline" in art was in an 1880 poem by Cornelia Seabring Parker, who used the word to rhyme with "gasoline" and "bombazine" in a work titled "A Balladine" (try as we might, we couldn't find a copy of that poem any where, but it sounds amazing).

Musicians seem to have been particularly drawn to Vaseline and, it seems, particularly in the 1990s: In 1993, The Flaming Lips found fame with their ode to the gooey stuff with "She Don't Use Jelly": The titular "she" would make you breakfast, she'd make you toast, but not with butter, or cheese, or jelly "“ no, she'd use Vaseline. In 1994, Vaseline was again in the charts with Stone Temple Pilots' "Vasoline", off their second album, Purple: "Flies in the vasoline we are/ Sometimes it blows my mind." And, in 1995, short-lived Brit Pop band Elastica sang "Vaseline" on their debut album: "When you're stuck like glue/ If you'd like to woo/ Vaseline."

In recent years, Matthew Barney, heralded by The New York Times as one of the most important American artists of his generation, brought Vaseline to a higher plane. Barney, the man behind the Cremaster video art series and Bjork, frequently uses the stuff as a medium—a disconcerting and often mutable medium. [Image Credit: Musings from the God of Cities. For more images of Barney's work, click here.]

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]