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Morbid Road Trip: Medical Oddities Around the World

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In our last two macabre getaways, we planned an almost-cross-country trip to see various items tied to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and took in the best of America’s medical oddities. Today, we go worldwide in a quest for more cadavers, gore and anatomical monstrosities outside the US. All aboard!

Museum Vrolik - Amsterdam, Netherlands

Originally the private collection of 19th century father and son anatomists Gerardus and Willem Vrolik and now housed at the University of Amsterdam, this is the world’s largest collection of human mutants. The museum has some 10,000 preserved anatomical specimens - including human cyclopses, conjoined twins and massively deformed fetuses - plus animal skeletons, anatomical models and reconstructions of various genetic mishaps. Some are hundreds of years old, some just a few decades. One of the museum’s highlights is the so-called Hovius Cabinet, an 18th-century display case containing some of the hundreds of disease- and defect-ravaged bones and skulls collected by Dutch physician Jacob Hovius. Besides the bones, the ornate case features a painted portrait of its owner and a dedication plaque that reads, “This is Hovius’ gift, which shows the healing power possessed still by nature when art succumbs.”
Image via the Museum Vrolik web site

Meguro Parasitological Museum - Tokyo, Japan

Billed as the world’s only parasite museum, this collection runs the gamut from a simple map of Japan’s parasite distribution to the world’s largest tapeworm. Among the museum's holdings are a dolphin’s parasite-ridden stomach, a turtle’s head with a parasite bursting through it, and photos of a poor guy’s testicles grotesquely distended by a tropical bug. All together, there are some 45,000 preserved parasite specimens, models and photos. The star of the show, though, is an enormous specimen of the tapeworm Diphyllobothrium nihonkaiense. Pulled from the gut of a Japanese man who is thought to have gotten it from eating trout, the beast measures 28.5 feet long. If the worm itself isn’t enough, there’s also a rope of identical length and girth that visitors are encouraged to play with to really get a sense of the thing’s size.
Photo by Flickr user andresmh

Cesare Lobrosos's Museum of Criminal Anthropology - Turin, Italy

Criminologist Cesare Lombroso believed that he had discovered the true “scientific” nature of crime. Criminality, he thought, was biology as destiny, and certain biological features like cranial anomalies, large jaws, low sloping foreheads, high cheekbones, patchy facial hair and long arms all contributed to deviant behavior. As part of his work on his theories, Lombroso amassed a huge collection of anatomical specimens, crime scene evidence and criminological artifacts. Lombroso started holding public exhibitions of his pieces in 1884, and parts of the collection have been displayed at museums around Italy since then. The bulk of it now resides at the Turin museum, including hundreds of skulls that once belonged to criminals and madmen, murder weapons, the old Gallows of Turin (retired in 1865) and, to “top it all off,” the preserved head of Lombroso himself.
Image via the museum's web site

“The Anatomical Machines” at  Museo Cappella Sansevero - Naples, Italy

In the underground chamber of this chapel, otherwise well known for its marble statues and reliefs, are two bizarre figures. They’re the skeletons of a man and a woman standing upright, encased in glass, with their circulatory systems almost perfectly intact. The Machines are the work of Giuseppe Salerno, an 18th century physician, and while there are notaries’ deeds and credit notes detailing the business side of their creation, no one knows how Salerno was able to preserve them so well. The Machines have fueled centuries of legend surrounding an old Prince of Sansevero. The local folklore has it that he was a member of a secret society and a wizard that could create blood out of nothing, and that the Machines are just two of the many people he killed while carrying out his dark experiments and black magic.
Image via the museum's web site

Siriraj Medical Museum - Bangkok, Thailand

Housed in Thailand’s oldest hospital, the place where the King goes when he falls sick, the “Museum of Death,” (as it's known to the locals) is actually comprised of six different museums focusing on pathology, forensics, the history of Thai medicine, parasitology, anatomy and prehistory. Among the museums’ more macabre holdings are the mummified remains of modern Thailand’s first serial killer, the cannibal Si Ouey Sae Urng. There's also a variety of preserved organs and fetuses, parasitic worms, a two-and-a-half-foot-wide elephantiasis-afflicted scrotum, and the head of a gunshot victim, neatly sawed in half to display the bullet’s path.
Postcard image via the museum's web site

Musée Fragonard - Maisons-Alfort, France


Photo by Flickr user Marc Kjerland

Four rooms in one of the world’s oldest veterinary schools, the École Nationale Vétérinaire d'Alfort, house the grisly teaching tools of its former teacher, anatomist Honoré Fragonard. While many écorchés (“flayed figures” depicting the muscles without skin) of his day were merely paintings or sculptures, Fragonard created his own from actual cadavers. Out of 700 bodies that he flayed, only 21 remain today and they’re all here. The highlight is probably “The Horseman of the Apocalypse.” Based on the Albrecht Durer woodcut, it consists of a man riding a horse (both flayed), surrounded by a bunch of human fetuses riding sheep and horse fetuses. There are also flayed human fetuses dancing a jig, plus weird veterinary specimens like like two-headed calf, a 10-legged sheep, a one-eyed horse and other animals with more or less body parts than there are supposed to be.

Moulagenmuseum - Zurich, Switzerland


Image via the museum's web site

The Moulagenmuseum specializes in 3-D wax models of body parts. Boring. These aren’t just any old body parts, though. These model the effects of flesh ravaged by disfiguring diseases. You’ve got your leprosy, your smallpox, your necrotizing fasciitis (flesh-eating bacteria syndrome), your syphillis, and a host of lesser rashes and fungal problems (like athlete’s foot). Unfortunately, the models are all behind glass, so you can’t get a full hands-on sensory experience.

Kunstkamera - St. Petersburg, Russia

Russia’s oldest museum, founded in St. Petersburg in 1727, started out as Peter the Great’s private collection. His diverse “cabinet of curiosities” featured a range of items from deformed fetuses and skulls to old, bizarre medical instruments. In his effort to modernize Russia, Peter gave his collection of diseased and abnormal anatomy a public home so that people could confront these “monsters” in a scientific way instead of falling back on superstition. In the 19th century, Kunstkamera’s collection was dispersed to various museums around the empire. Most of the grislier items are still in the original Kunstkammer Building, which now hosts the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. The museum’s second floor contains the collection of preparations Peter bought from the Dutch anatomist Fredrick Ruysch, which is cataloged online. The museum’s do-not-miss item is probably the head of one Willem Mons. Mons was the brother of Peter’s mistress, and was hired to be the private secretary to his wife Catherine. He was eventually arrested and charged with embezzling money from the government, but the real reason for his punishment has long been rumored to be his affair with the empress. Either way, he was publicly drawn and quartered, and his head, which was decapitated and supposedly given to the empress to contemplate, is still preserved in alcohol at the museum today.

Museum of Human Disease - Sydney, Australia

Founded by pathology professor Donald Wilhelm at the University of New South Wales in the 1960s for use by medical students and pathologists, the Museum of Human Disease didn’t open to the general public until 2009. The museum has some 2,700 specimens of diseased human tissue, from bits of skin to hearts to lungs, all of them enlarged, malformed, blackened, cancerous or ravaged by disease in some way. The parts themselves are preserved in formalin, and each specimen is also accompanied by a clinical history and a description of its abnormality, including an explanation of the microscopic-level changes that occured. Its curators note one specimen as being particularly eye-catching: a leg that appears to have had gangrene, but was actually stricken with hemangiosarcoma, a fast-growing, highly invasive cancer of the blood vessels.
Photo by Instagram user Sabrina M. (@s__m__)

Surgeons’ Hall - Edinburgh, Scotland

The museum of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh has three permanent collections, the History of Surgery Museum, the Dental Collection and the Surgeons' Hall Pathology Museum. One of the grisliest items is not in the pathology exhibit, as you might expect, but the historical one. There, they have a tattered book, no larger than a man’s hand and bound in what appears to unremarkable dark brown leather with faded gold lettering. Upon closer inspection, though, one sees that the faint letters read “EXECUTED 28 JAN 1829,” giving a clue to the wholly remarkable source of the “leather.” The book is bound in the flesh of William Burke, the notorious murderer who killed so he could sell bodies to the anatomist Robert Knox. During their trial, Burke’s accomplice William Hare turned on him in exchange for immunity. Burke was found guilty, hanged, dissected and had his flesh turned into a unique, Necronomicon-esque book cover.
Photo by Wikimedia user Kim Traynor

All right, same deal as last time: my knowledge is not encyclopedic, so which weird, foreign medical museums or exhibits have I missed?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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