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10 Heroic Battlefield Medics

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When we study war in history class, we learn about kings, presidents, and generals. It's a shame we don't get to learn about the many everyday people who step up and do extraordinary things, like the medical workers who perform heroically under terrible conditions. Here are a few of those extraordinary people.

1. U.S. Civil War: Mary Edwards Walker

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was the only woman in her medical school class in 1855. Her medical practice floundered because few people trusted a female doctor. Walker volunteered her service to the Union Army, but was not allowed to enlist, so served as a volunteer. She was not allowed to serve as a doctor, either, so she served as a nurse -at first. Walker ministered to the wounded at the First Battle of Bull Run and worked her way into the position of a field surgeon's assistant. She was awarded an army commission 1863, but was still technically designated as a civilian worker. Walker was taken by the Confederacy as a prisoner of war for several months in 1864 and was accused of being a spy. She continued to serve until the end of the war. In 1865 Walker became the only woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor, for her efforts at the First Battle of Bull Run. After the war, she campaigned for women's rights, temperance, and even ran for political office -before women even had the right to vote.

2. WW I: John Simpson Kirkpatrick

In 1910, Englishman John Simpson Kirkpatrick was a teenage deserter from the British Merchant Navy who found himself stranded in Australia. He enlisted in ANZAC, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps as John Simpson in 1914 and was designated a stretcher bearer. His medical ship was sent to the Gallipoli Penninsula of Turkey in 1915, during the battle in which 130,000 men died. Simpson rounded up a few donkeys to use in carrying the wounded over the rough terrain, and spent 24 days ferrying casualties from the battlefront to the seashore, often under fire. Simpson and the donkey he named Duffy were called "the bravest of the brave" by soldiers of the various nationalities in Gallipoli. He carried out his rescue missions day after day until he was killed by a sniper on May 19, 1915. Simpson was 22 years old at the time of his death.

3. WW II: Rex Gregor

Twenty-one-year-old Navy Pharmacist's mate Rex Gregor was assigned to the Marines fighting on the island of Vella LaVella in 1943. Gregor was fearless, retrieving the wounded under fire as a matter of course. In one instance, he raced through Japanese fire to a blazing ship full of ammunition in order to save the medical supplies he needed. In another instance, he could not find a doctor for a Marine who needed an immediate leg amputation, so he did it himself. Later, he got word from a field hospital that his surgery was adequate and the patient would be OK.

4. WW II: Desmond Doss

In 1945, then-Private First Class Desmond Doss became the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor. Doss was a devout Seventh-day Adventist who was willing to serve his country, but refused to kill. He prayed constantly and wouldn't work on Saturday, with the exception of tending to the wounded. His commander tried to expel him on a Section 8 charge, and the other soldiers resented him. But Doss refused to admit mental instability and proved his bravery as a medic on the field of battle in both Guam and Leyte. The Medal of Honor came for Doss' actions in Okinawa in May of 1945. Over three weeks of fighting, he retrieved approximately 75 casualties under artillery, mortar and machine gun fire. According to his Medal of Honor citation, on May 21st, Doss was wounded by a grenade while carrying out another retrieval mission. He dressed his own injuries while waiting five hours for someone to retrieve him. Meanwhile, Doss still attended other wounded soldiers on the field, even directing the litter bearers to aid other men first. A sniper then shot him in the arm, breaking the bone. Doss made a splint out of a rifle stock and crawled 300 yards to the aid station. Desmond Doss' actions were the subject of the 2004 documentary The Conscientious Objector.

5. WW II: John Bradley

Navy corpsman John Bradley was renowned as one of the six men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima and contributed to the most iconic image of World War II. But he shunned the fame that came from that event. He also shunned any recognition of the Navy Cross he earned for heroism on the battlefield, and his family only learned of the award after his death. Bradley enlisted in the Navy at age 19 and became a Pharmacist's mate. The Marines took him as a corpsman to the islands of the Pacific Theater. On Feb. 21, 1945, he rushed to the aid of a Marine wounded by machine gun fire on Iwo Jima. Under fire, he rigged up an immediate plasma transfusion and bound the Marine's bleeding wounds, while shielding the patient's body with his own. Only then did he drag the Marine thirty yards through an enemy barrage to shelter. A few days later, Bradley was on Mount Suribachi for the flag-raising, then was wounded by shrapnel and evacuated.

6. French Indochina: Geneviève de Galard

French Air Force Lieutenant Genevieve de Galard-Terraube went to French Indochina (now Vietnam) as a medevac flight nurse in 1953. In March of 1954, she was stranded with troops in Dien Bien Phu during heavy fighting when her plane was damaged, so she volunteered to work in the field hospital. She was the only female medical worker there. De Galard retrieved fallen soldiers from the battlefield, assisted in surgery, and ministered to the wounded of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, eventually running a 40-bed ward containing the most gravely wounded soldiers. The French considered the battle lost on May 7th, but de Galard stayed until the medical staff was finally evacuated on May 24th. De Galard was dubbed l'ange de Dien Bien Phu (the Angel of Dien Bien Phu) and became a media sensation. You can see her return to France in this video.

7. Vietnam: Charles L. Kelly

Major Charles L. Kelly was a medevac pilot in Vietnam and the Commanding Officer of the 57th Medical Detachment. He flew constant rescue missions from January to July 1964, even at night with low visibility. On July 1st, he was warned not to enter a "hot zone," but went anyway to pick up the wounded. When asked when he was going to return, he said, "When I have your wounded." Those words became the slogan for the medevac corps. Shortly afterward, he was shot through the open door and died when his helicopter crashed. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

8. Vietnam: Thomas W. Bennett

Corporal Thomas W. Bennett was assigned as a medical aid to the 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, fighting in Plieku province in Vietnam. On February 9, 1969, Bennett braved enemy fire to pull at least five wounded men to shelter during a battle in the Chu Pa area. He repeatedly retrieved the wounded over the next two days, until he was shot and by a sniper while pulling another wounded soldier towards safety. Bennett died from the wound. Bennett received the Medal of Honor posthumously, presented to his parents by president Nixon in 1970. Bennett had enlisted in the army as a conscientious objector, since he opposed killing on religious grounds, but was willing to serve his country in another capacity -that of saving lives.

9. Afghanistan: Sally Clarke

Lance Corporal Sally Clarke of the British Army was 22 years old and serving in Afghanistan in 2009. A Taliban rocket-propelled grenade hit her unit on patrol in Helmand province, exploding shrapnel three times and wounding eight soldiers, including Clarke. A piece of shrapnel was embedded in her back, but the other soldiers were more seriously wounded. Clarke rushed from one patient to the next, binding up wounds until the soldiers could be evacuated. Clarke refused evacuation herself, as she was the only medic in the patrol unit and felt responsible. She was treated at a nearby aid station. Clarke later received the Queen's Commendation for Bravery.

10. Afghanistan: Monica Lin Brown

Army Spc. Monica Lin Brown was an 18-year-old medic serving the 82nd Airborne in Paktia province, Afghanistan, in 2007. A roadside bomb went off as her convoy was passing, wounding five soldiers and setting their Humvee on fire. Brown ran through gunfire and mortars to reach the solders, who managed to leave the burning vehicle, and shielded them with her body. Brown received a Silver Star for her bravery -and was also pulled out of Paktia because of regulations barring women from combat.

This brief list is far from comprehensive. The many other medical workers who perform heroically during wartime could fill books -and may fill another list like this in the future.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.