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Biological Warfare in the American Revolution?

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Popular culture has given us the idea that war used to be less vicious and more orderly. I don’t know about you, but when I think of the American Revolution, I can’t help but picture soldiers standing in straight single-file lines on either side of the battlefield waiting for the command to fire. It’s always been depicted as being so proper.

But I recently read a piece in the journal Colonial Williamsburg that opened my eyes to battle tactics during the revolution. In the article "Colonial Germ Warfare", author/historian Harold B. Gill Jr. reveals that there’s "no proof that anyone attempted to spread disease among the enemy troops during the American Revolutionary War, but there is a plenitude of circumstantial evidence."


It turns out the British army may well have been using smallpox as a weapon against the Continental Army.

Smallpox would have been the obvious disease of choice for a redcoat germ warfare campaign. In Europe, the disease was common, and most British troops had already been exposed to it at an early age, and developed antibodies to protect themselves from it. Most American soldiers probably hadn't been exposed to smallpox, though, and wouldn't have developed an immunity.

Washington could have inoculated all his troops, giving them a mild infection and building up their resistance, but that would have laid up all his soldiers for a few days at the same time. Instead, he ordered new recruits who hadn’t been sick with smallpox to get inoculated between training and deployment. This got the army on its feet for the most part, but left gaps in the protection of some veteran troops.

At first, Washington did not seem to believe that the British would turn to biological weapons. While the colonials laid siege to Boston in 1775, the British in the city were busy inoculating their troops. British deserters reported to the Continentals that “‘several persons are to be sent out of Boston ... that have been inoculated with the small-pox’ with the intention of spreading the infection.” According to Gill, both Washington and his aide-de-camp initially thought the reports weren't credible, but Washington quickly changed his mind and wrote to John Hancock a week later when diseased deserters and civilians made their way into his camp.

That same year, the defenders of Quebec reportedly used a similar tactic. As Gill explains:

"It was rumored that General Guy Carleton, British commander in Quebec, sent infected people to the American camp. Thomas Jefferson was convinced the British were responsible for illness in the lines. He later wrote: ‘I have been informed by officers who were on the spot, and whom I believe myself, that this disorder was sent into our army designedly by the commanding officer in Quebec.’ After the defeat at Quebec the American troops gathered at Crown Point, where John Adams found their condition deplorable: ‘Our Army at Crown Point is an object of wretchedness to fill a humane mind with horrour; disgraced, defeated, discontented, diseased, naked, undisciplined, eaten up with vermin; no clothes, beds, blankets, no medicines; no victuals, but salt pork and flour.’"

It wasn’t just the rebel army the British were targeting, either. In one of a few cases of explicit evidence of germ warfare tactics, General Alexander Leslie revealed he had no reservations about infecting civilians. He told General Cornwallis in 1781 that he planned to bring “above 700 Negroes…down the River with the Small Pox,” and send them to various “Rebell Plantations.” Similarly, before Virginia's royal governor fled Norfolk in 1776, he was said to have intentionally infected two of his slaves with smallpox and then released them into the colony to spread the disease.

Atrocity, this reminds us, is not an invention of the modern era. The weapons may have been cruder and a little less effective, but the goals behind them – complete destruction of the enemy, collateral damage be damned – are something we can easily recognize from modern acts of war and terror.
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For more on colonial germ warfare, see Colonial Williamsburg. Hat tip to Christopher Albon and his awesome blog Conflict Health for putting the story on my radar.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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