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Who Was Walter Reed?

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Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. cares for thousands of active and retired members of our armed forces. We hear Walter Reed’s name a lot in association with the hospital, but who was he? What did he do to get a hospital named after him? Let’s take a look.

© LARRY DOWNING/Reuters/Corbis

If you want to get a major hospital named after you, it doesn’t hurt to be a little precocious. Reed certainly was. He graduated from the University of Virginia’s medical school in July 1869, two months shy of his 18th birthday. (He’s still the youngest person to ever complete an M.D. at the school.)

After graduation Reed headed to New York to beef up his clinical expertise, but he hit some roadblocks. Although he was able to get a gig as the assistant sanitary officer for the Brooklyn Board of Health, many potential patients and partners were skeptical of Reed’s medical prowess because of his extremely young age. Reed didn’t care for big city life all that much, either, so he eventually decided to leave civilian life and join the U.S. Army Medical Corps.

Reed officially received his appointment as a first lieutenant in June 1875, and for the next 18 years he and his growing family bounced around the country, including long tours in rugged Western outposts.

They Had a Fever

By all accounts Reed was a heck of an army doctor, but he really didn’t make his memorable mark until he moved back to Washington in 1893 to take a faculty position at the Army Medical School and a job as the curator of Army Medical Museum. By this time Reed had received extra training in pathology and bacteriology at Johns Hopkins, and he began rigorous research into diseases like yellow fever, typhoid, and cholera.

At the time, typhoid was a real problem for the army. Troops training for and fighting in the 1898 Spanish-American War kept going down to typhoid in squalid army camps. In 1899 Surgeon General George Miller Sternberg sent a team of army doctors headed by Reed to Cuba to study the disease. Reed and his squad of bacteriologists eventually pinpointed the cause of the typhoid outbreaks: fecal bacteria and unclean drinking water.

Reed’s biggest triumph came the following year. After his success investigating typhoid, Surgeon General Sternberg set Reed to the task of investigating the cause of yellow fever. Reed led another team to Cuba to tackle this even trickier disease. Reed eventually began investigating a 20-year-old theory that a Cuban doctor named Carlos Finlay had proposed about mosquitoes spreading yellow fever.

Critics initially dismissed Finlay’s mosquito theory as nonsense, but Reed and the Yellow Fever Commission realized there was something to the old doctor’s idea. After all, if yellow fever moved around via normal old human contact, why was the pattern of infections so erratic? (One person in a home could have yellow fever while everyone else stayed healthy.) The younger members of Reed’s team even agreed to inoculate themselves with yellow fever to test the theory.

Although these experiments were incredibly risky – Reed’s friend and collaborator Jesse William Lazear died of yellow fever during the study – they helped establish once and for all that mosquitoes, not contact with infected people or their bodily fluids, transmitted yellow fever. The commission further realized that by getting rid of mosquito breeding grounds of standing water around Cuba, the incidence of yellow fever could be slashed. (This ability to curb yellow fever rates would later prove invaluable in the construction of the Panama Canal.)

Honoring the Good Doctor

Reed returned to Washington from Cuba in 1901, and the medical community toasted him as the man who beat yellow fever. (Reed himself was humble and continuously gave credit to the Cuban Dr. Finlay whose theory inspired the commission’s investigation of mosquitoes.) He continued to research yellow fever and lecture on bacteriology until his death the next year from peritonitis following an appendectomy.

When the army opened a new medical center in 1909, who better to name it after than the rock star doctor and bacteriologist who had died just seven years earlier? Walter Reed General Hospital admitted its first 10 patients on May 1, 1909, and the center has been keeping Reed’s name alive and helping brave members of the armed forces return to health ever since.

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]