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Grand Gallimaufry

Anatomy of 14th Century Bubonic Plague Hazmat Suits

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Grand Gallimaufry

The Bubonic Plague, also known as the Black Death, killed at least 75 million people on three continents. Described as the most lethal epidemic in history, the plague began in China in the 1330s and made its way through Europe from 1346 to 1353. In those times, physicians didn't know what was causing the disease to spread, but they did know it was highly contagious. To provide medical care and to protect themselves, doctors of the time invented the medieval version of a hazmat suit.

Each piece of the suit—the hat, the bird-like mask, the red glass eyes, the black overcoat, the leather breeches, and the wooden cane—is thought to have had an important function to either keep the disease away or scare it away. What doctors didn't know was that they were probably doing more harm than good—spreading the plague even more by exposing more people to their plague-covered articles of clothing.

The Hat

In the 14th Century, doctors would have been easily identifiable by their wide-brimmed black hats worn close to the head. Plague Doctors and their hats are similar to today's chefs and soldiers. It's thought that the wide-brimmed hat was used to partially shield doctors from bacteria.

The Bird-like Mask

Courtesy of Pixipui

What was with the bird's beak? Well, a common belief at the time was that the plague was being spread by birds. (We now know that rats and fleas were responsible for spreading the Black Death.) The doctors may have thought that dressing up in a bird-like gas mask, the plague would be transferred from the patient to the garment. This beak piece was also filled with vinegar, sweet oils, and other strong-smelling chemicals to mask the stench of death and unburied bodies.

The Red Glass Eyes

This one's pretty simple. Doctors thought that red eyepieces would make them insusceptible to evil (aka the deadly disease).

The Black Overcoat

To minimize skin exposure, doctors tucked the neckline of their long overcoat behind the mask. The coat extended down to the feet and was often completely coated with suet (a hard, white fat on the kidneys and loins of cattle and sheep, usually used in puddings and pastries) or wax. Doctors thought the suet could draw the plague away from the flesh of the infected or the wax could repel it. It's also thought that the wax could have just been used to keep bodily fluids from clinging to the coat.

The Leather Breeches

Similar to waders worn by fishermen, breeches covered each leg separately and were worn beneath the overcoat to protect the legs and groin from infection. Because the infection tended to attack the lymph nodes first, doctors paid close attention to cover and protect their armits, neck and groin. 

The Wooden Cane

Doctors used the cane to direct family members on how and where to move infected patients and to examine them without direct contact.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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