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10 Unbelievable Performance-Enhancing Substances

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Here are 10 historical performance enhancers that put the ‘dope’ in doping.

1. Strychnine

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Better known as a deadly poison, strychnine was thought to be the ticket to success for Thomas Hicks, an American runner in the 1904 Olympic marathon, who mixed it with brandy and egg whites. He needed emergency medical treatment at the finish line and nearly died, but won the gold medal.

2. Asses’ hooves

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The hooves of the Abyssinian ass were taken in powder form by ancient Egyptian athletes, who boiled them in oil and spiked them with rose hips to mask that funky ass-hoof flavor.

3. Sweet, sweet ether

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Sugar cubes soaked in ether helped cyclists get through 144-hour races in the 1870s. When ether wasn’t enough, coaches added nitroglycerine and cocaine, with some peppermint for flavor.

4. Baking soda

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Some modern-day swimmers and runners swear by “soda-doping,” which means ingesting baking soda to shave precious seconds off their times. By increasing blood pH, baking soda may reduce the acid produced by athletes’ muscles, allowing them to keep on trucking. Soda-doping also causes diarrhea, which could keep the competition out of the pool.

5. Ultraviolet radiation

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In the 1930s, Russian scientists found that peppering athletes with UV rays improved their speed in the 100-meter dash. German researchers in the 1940s found similar improvement in cycling times after a spell under the sunlamp.

6. Guinea pig sperm

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In the late 1800s, physiologist Charles Brown-Séquard injected himself with his liquide testiculaire, testifying that the extract of dog and guinea-pig testes made him stronger and had even “lengthened the arc of his urine.” While he likely overstated the effectiveness of his own distillation, his discovery was a predecessor of hormone-based performance-enhancers.

7. Pigeon potions

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The sport of pigeon racing has been rocked by doping scandals: While some handlers resort to anabolic steroids, others use drugs that prevent molting to maximize a bird’s training season. Birds have also been doped with purgatives to encourage them to drop their payloads before racing, thereby reducing the birds’ weight.

8. Magic mushrooms

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It wasn’t just berserkers who favored magic mushrooms to enhance performance: Olympians in the third century also counted on hallucinogenic ‘shrooms to speed them to the finish line.

9. Arsenic

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In the regions of Styria and Tyrol, Austrian lumberjacks kept the axe swinging with megadoses of arsenic, which would have made a nifty addition to the Monty Python song. Styrians also took arsenic to pep them up before long mountain hikes and as a digestive aid.

10. Human hearts

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The ancient Aztecs swore by ‘em to boost both military and athletic prowess.

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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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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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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]

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