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11 Items You'll No Longer Find in Medicine Cabinets

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Medicines and medical practices have come a long way in a relatively short time. Here are some items that have vanished from medicine cabinets in the last few decades.

1. Mercurochrome

Most folks under the age of 30 have never heard of this topical antiseptic. But many of us Boomers begged mom to daub our cuts and scrapes with the relatively painless Mercurochrome in lieu of that nasty stinging Iodine. Sure it stained your flesh pinkish-red, but you could probably wear that temporarily as a battle scar. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration put very strict limitations on the sale of Mercurochrome in 1998 and stated that it was no longer considered to be a GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) over-the-counter product. Many grandmothers scoffed, "Since when?! I used that stuff for years and none of my kids died!" But more scientific minds agreed that the ban was a wise and "about time!" decision, since the main active ingredient in Mercurochrome is mercury.

2. Iodine

Iodine burned like fire when applied to an open wound; this was mainly because the tincture sold for home use had an alcohol base. Many doctors today use a water-based iodine as an antiseptic, as it has one of the broadest germ-killing spectrums. The skull and crossbones on the label along with the word POISON in capital letters probably give a clue as to why this old school remedy is rarely found in home first aid kits anymore.

3. Mercury Thermometer

Before those convenient in-your-ear digital thermometers hit the market, we had to struggle to keep these heavy glass models under our tongues long enough for the mercury filling to register whether or not we were sick enough to stay home from school. My younger brother, Iron Jaws, bit through enough of these that Mom managed to collect a nice sized blob of mercury that she kept in a bottle for our amusement. Mercury thermometers are still available in the US (they've been banned throughout much of Europe and Asia), but the American Medical Association and the Environmental Protection Agency "strongly recommend" that alternative thermometers be used in the home.

4. Castor Oil

Once upon a time a bottle of vile-tasting castor oil was a staple in every medicine cabinet. For some reason, mothers in the 1920s and '30s used it as a cure-all for any sort of tummy ailment. In reality, the only condition castor oil is suitable to treat is constipation, and even in that case doctors tend to discourage its use, as the results are often unpredictable and can result in severe cramping and involuntary explosive bowel movements that last for hours.

5. TB Test

The skin test for tuberculosis was a common annual procedure for all elementary school children in the US during the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. The rate of infection decreased dramatically by the late 1970s, and universal TB testing gradually ceased. By the early 1990s, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended testing for at-risk children (immigrants from Mexico, the Philippines, Vietnam, India, and China; kids exposed to IV drug users or adults with HIV) only. The benefits of targeted testing are proven, but implementing a procedure is difficult to do without stigmatizing the affected children, so in some school districts the program is currently in political limbo.

6. Disclosure Tablets

It used to be that once a year the school nurse, usually accompanied by a representative from Colgate or Crest, presented everyone in class with a packet containing a free toothbrush, a tiny tube of toothpaste, and two small red pills. The pills were disclosure tablets, and their purpose was to indicate the disgusting areas of your mouth where plaque was collecting and you needed to step up your brushing routine lest you end up with dentures in high school. The dental kits are rarely given away as a matter of routine today; thanks to today's litigious society, you usually have to ask your dentist or pharmacist for the tablets. That way they can ask all the proper questions ahead of time to make sure you (or your child) aren't allergic to anything in them or whether they violate your dietary restrictions (guess there weren't that many vegan kids back in the 1960s).

7. Fluoride

How many of you gagged just looking at that photo? For kids whose families were unable to afford to go to a dentist, public schools often offered a free fluoride treatment once per year. And even though we saw our dentist regularly, my mom couldn't pass up a freebie and always signed us up for the torture procedure. The fluoride was thick and syrupy and tasted terrible no matter what fun new flavor (like "bubblegum") they attempted to disguise it with. Luckily fluoridated water, toothpastes, rinses, and the like have virtually eliminated the need for additional special fluoride treatments.

8. Eye Patch for Amblyopia

Years ago the most popular treatment for "lazy eye" was a pirate-style eye patch worn over the good eye. Thanks to new treatments like specialized lenses and eye drops, patching is used only in a small percentage of cases these days. And, when patching the amblyopic eye is deemed necessary, doctors have discovered that an adhesive patch worn for a few hours daily is far more effective than the Moshe Dayan model.

9. Nurse's Cap

Remember how the mere sight of the nurse entering the examining room in her starched white uniform with the cap perched atop her head was enough to make you break into a flop sweat as a kid? Forget about "white coat syndrome," that severe uniform made every woman look like Nurse Ratched and sent many a patient into panic mode. Nurses ditched the white dresses and pantyhose in the 1980s in favor of colorful and whimsical scrubs, which were both more practical and comfortable for the wearer and more relaxing for the patient. And while the cap was the iconic symbol of nursing (nursing students were presented their caps with great ceremony upon graduation), it was also extremely unhygienic; even with multiple bobby pins, the hat rarely stayed in place, forcing the wearer to constantly fuss with it, touching her hair and contaminating her hands. Today's nursing school graduates receive pins instead of caps.

10. Head Mirror

Old-time movie and TV doctors always wore their head mirrors over their foreheads, like a shiny bullseye. In practice, however, the mirror (which was invented in the mid-1800s) was worn over one eye so that the doctor could peep through the tiny hole in the middle. The rest of the disc reflected an overhead light (or even the sunlight) onto the area of the patient the doctor was examining. Positioning the mirror just so literally took hours of practice, and most doctors today use a battery-operated head light instead. Some otorhinolaryngologists still prefer the mirror, though, believing that it provides the best light for indirect laryngeal examination.

11. Iron Lung

Dr. Philip Drinker of the Harvard School of Public Health developed the first "thoracic cage" that used vacuum cleaner blowers to alternate between atmospheric and sub-atmospheric pressure to force a patient to breathe. The machine, known as a Drinker Respirator, was originally intended as a pediatric-ward device to assist premature babies born with under-developed lungs. But when the dreaded disease known as polio began to spread in the United States, doctors found a second use for the device. Polio frequently paralyzed patients' diaphragms, rendering them unable to breathe on their own. The Warren Collins Corporation fine-tuned Drinker's design and mass-produced a similar device at a more affordable price; it was dubbed the Iron Lung. In the early 1950s, most hospitals had wards filled with iron lungs, and many homes had a polio patient encased in one as well. Today's patients who are unable to breathe on their own are intubated with positive pressure ventilators, as opposed to the negative pressure utilized by the iron lung of yesteryear.
What home remedies do you remember grandma or mom using on you when you were a kid? What medical device that scared you to death has been replaced by a kinder, gentler gadget? Share both your horror stories and warm fuzzies!

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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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Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]