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11 Bizarre and Dangerous Items Sold by Sears in 1902

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The 1902 edition of the Sears, Roebuck catalogue offers items of particular interest and questionable health benefits—everything from the latest fashions to the “surest” cures. Here are some highlights.

1. Dr. Rose’s French Arsenic Complexion Wafers

These poisonous wafers were advertised as being “simply magical” for the complexion, their most striking effects “being brought about by their steady use.” They were guaranteed to improve “even the coarsest and most repulsive skin and complexion”—especially if you’re into the lurid pallor of death.

2. The Toilet Mask

At first glance, a toilet mask doesn’t sound so bad. But this mask doesn’t use soothing cucumber extracts to beautify the complexion—it’s an “acid cured” rubber mask coated with “healing agents” meant to eradicate “freckles, liver spots, and other facial blemishes.” Who needs microdermabrasion when you can just use trace amounts of acid?

3. Magic Flesh Builder and Cupper

This toilet accessory looks more or less like an oversized suction cup. Its purpose? To “rebuild the shrunken tissues of the bust, neck, arms, and the only method which permanently removes wrinkles,” assumedly by sucking things back into place. We’d hate to be the guinea pig who tested this thing out.

4. Spirits of Turpentine

This elixir was ingested to kill intestinal parasites—and hopefully not their human host. Turpentine still has modern medicinal uses, but usually in chest rubs (Vicks, for example) and not drinkable medicines.

5. Aconite

This herb is advertised as a homeopathic medicine, and while it has a long history of medicinal use, it’s better known by another name: wolfsbane, a known poison and neurotoxin. Though the plant can be used as an anesthetic, it works because it damages the nerves around a treated area.

6. Kerosene Emulsion

To be used as an insecticide on crops and animals, this product promises to kill “plant lice, red spiders, scales, and mealy bugs,” among other pests. It also offers strong motivation for washing your fruits and veggies very well before eating.

7. (Veterinary) Castrating Knives

While many parents might argue that castrating knives pose no lasting danger to male infants, the horse that came under this knife would probably disagree. Knives come with a choice of one, two, or three blades of varying sizes to meet all of your gelding needs.

8. Giant Power Heidelberg Electric Belt

Suffering from a nervous disease? Infertility? A “weakness peculiar to men?" Then this electric belt may be for you! In cases of sexual weakness, “a cure is certain.” This belt promises “the best, most reliable, most harmless yet powerful, cheapest cure possible.” Just shock yourself back to health!

9. Opium

Marketed as a homeopathic remedy, opium was available by mail order to your doorstep. If you happened to form an addiction, never fear—you could always order more!

10. Nitric Acid

Though nitric acid has some medicinal purposes when used with extreme caution—from addressing potassium deficiencies to its use as a cauterizing or diuretic agent—it’s also a highly poisonous substance. The National Library of Medicine suggests seeking medical attention if you so much as inhale any fumes from nitric acid. However, in 1902, it was listed as a homeopathic medicine.

11. The Set of McKinley Assassination Slides

Though this item isn’t particularly dangerous, it is particularly curious. You could order a lecture set of slides for your Stereopticon (a home slide projector) depicting “realistic views of the assassination,” including images of McKinley’s attacker “taken within ten minutes of his capture by the police.” Who needs Tarantino movies when you can view real footage of a national tragedy?

All information and pictures (with the exception of the top image) were obtained by the Bounty Edition reprint of the 1902 Sears, Roebuck Catalogue. Top image courtesy of Amazon.

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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]