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11 Notable Patients at the Government Hospital for the Insane

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St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., provided mental health care services to members of the U.S. armed forces and District residents when it opened as the Government Hospital for the Insane in 1855. Founded by social reformer and mental health advocate Dorothea Dix, St. Elizabeths treated more than 7,000 patients at its height during the 1940s and 50s. Here are a few of the hospital’s more noteworthy patients over the years.

1. Ezra Pound

An expatriate American poet who made radio broadcasts on behalf of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime during World War II, Pound pled insanity after the United States charged him with treason in 1945. Pound was committed to St. Elizabeths and remained there until 1958, when the treason charge was dismissed. It was later discovered that the doctors who examined Pound found him to be perfectly sane. Pound enjoyed a relatively posh 13-year stay at St. Elizabeths. According to a 1981 New York Times article, he lived in a large room overlooking the Capitol, received special food, and was allowed to give lectures in the hospital auditorium. He also commissioned a Library of Congress researcher and fellow anti-Semite, Eustace Mullins, to write a book about the history of the Federal Reserve.

2. Benito Mussolini (His Brain Tissue, Anyway)

Pound probably would’ve been pleased to know that, for at least part of his time at St. Elizabeths, a sliver of one of his heroes’ brains was housed nearby. After Mussolini was executed in April 1945, an autopsy was performed and two samples of his brain tissue were sent to the United States. One went to the Army Institute of Pathology and the other went to St. Elizabeths. Dr. Winfred Overholser, the superintendent of St. Elizabeths at the time, studied the sample for evidence that Mussolini had suffered from paresis brought on by syphilis, but the tests came back negative. While the Army returned its sample to Mussolini’s family in 1966, the whereabouts of the St. Elizabeths sample is shrouded in mystery.

3. William Chester Minor

Minor, a Yale-educated surgeon who served in the Union Army during the Civil War, was treated at St. Elizabeths in 1868 before moving to London. While struggling to cope with the paranoia he suffered after the war, Minor shot and killed a brewery worker he believed was trying to break into his home in 1872. After being found not guilty on the grounds of insanity, Minor was sent to the Asylum for the Criminally Insane in Broadmoor. While living there he became one of the main contributors to the original Oxford English Dictionary. Minor returned to the United States in the early 20th century and was confined to St. Elizabeths for a short time before being released. He was subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia and died in 1920.

4. John Hinckley, Jr.

© Brendan Smialowski/Reuters/Corbis

Hinckley was confined to St. Elizabeths after a jury found he was legally insane when he attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981. In a letter written shortly before the shooting, the 25-year-old Hinckley explained that he was trying to impress actress Jodie Foster, for whom he had developed an unhealthy obsession after seeing Taxi Driver. The public outrage over the verdict led to the Insanity Defense Reform Law of 1984, which significantly modified the standard for achieving a not guilty verdict by reason of insanity. Hinckley remains in St. Elizabeths, but he is now allowed to make periodic unsupervised visits to his mother. A hearing to determine Hinckley’s future began last November.

5. Richard Lawrence

Hinckley wasn’t the first would-be presidential assassin to end up in St. Elizabeths. Lawrence, who may have been subjected to harmful chemicals during his job as a house painter, attempted to assassinate Andrew Jackson in 1835. After listening to Francis Scott Key prosecute Lawrence, it didn’t take long for the jury to come to the conclusion that the painter was not guilty by reason of insanity. Lawrence was held in several institutions before being committed to the Government Hospital for the Insane in 1855. He remained there until his death in 1861.

6. Washington Post Reporter Karlyn Barker

In 1972, Washington Post reporter Karlyn Barker checked into St. Elizabeths as an undercover patient to get an unfiltered look at what went on inside its walls.

“I spent five days and five nights in a mental hospital,” Barker wrote. “That’s a genteel term for mad house, but there was nothing genteel about being a sane person living among the insane.” Barker, who described her stay as “excruciatingly depressing and boring,” recounted the the eerie voices that kept her up at night and the smell of urine that pervaded one of the hospital’s long hallways.

7. Cuban Refugees

In October 1980, 92 Cuban refugees who were confined to St. Elizabeths for psychiatric observation seized control of a small building on campus. Authorities quelled the disturbance after six hours and no injuries were reported.

8. Capt. James Fitzgibbon

In 1903, Fitzgibbon, a longtime United States Treasury employee, escaped from and was then reconfined to St. Elizabeths. As the New York Times reported, “Capt. Fitzgibbon lost his reason from the strain of handling large sums of money in the Treasury.” Fitzgibbon, who was the representative of the United States Express Company and charged with handling millions of dollars each year, referred to his job as purgatory on Earth. “Not for my life would I steal a penny, but the temptation is often great,” Fitzgibbon once told a colleague. “Fight it as you may, the temptation to be dishonest will come to you.”

9. Mary Fuller

Fuller, a silent film star in the early 20th century, suffered a nervous breakdown after the death of her mother in 1940 and was admitted to St. Elizabeths seven rocky years later. She remained there until her death in 1973 and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Congressional Cemetery, as the hospital couldn’t locate any of her relatives.

10. Augustus Owsley Stanley III

After getting expelled from military school in ninth-grade for getting his classmates drunk, Stanley spent more that a year as a patient at St. Elizabeths. The grandson of a former Kentucky governor and U.S. senator, Stanley enrolled at the University of California, where he discovered LSD and began producing it himself. Stanley quit school to become the first large-scale producer of the drug and became the main provider to The Beatles, as well as to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey and his “Merry Pranksters.”

11. Charles Guiteau

Guiteau didn’t actually spend any time in St. Elizabeths, but he would’ve if Dr. Charles Nichols and Dr. William Godding had their way. Nichols and Godding, the first two superintendents of St. Elizabeths, testified that Guiteau, the lawyer who shot and killed President James Garfield in 1881, was insane and not fit to stand trial. The court decided otherwise and sentenced Guiteau to death. Guiteau certainly seemed a bit deranged. During his trial, he insulted the judge and solicited legal advice from spectators in the courtroom. He also appealed to Chester Arthur, who became president after Garfield died, by pointing out that his deed had helped raise Arthur’s salary from $8,000 to $50,000.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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