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11 Weird Old-School Plastic Surgery Techniques

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Open Library

Despite its common usage as a term to mean "artificial" or "cosmetic," plastic surgery derives from the Greek πλαστικός (plastikos), which means "to mold or give form." Modern plastic surgery encompasses both cosmetic and reconstructive surgery, and has a history that goes much further back than our modern movie stars and beauty obsessions.

1. Egypt, 1200 B.C.E.: Post-Mortem Modifications

Catalogue General Antiquites Egyptiennes du Musee du Caire; The Royal Mummies. G. Elliot Smith, 1912. 

The first plastic surgery wasn't done on living beings, but was considered crucial to the Egyptians who were mummified. In the afterlife, the only physical feature believed to be completely retained was the facial structure, but mummification dried the body such that the face was often unrecognizable. Ramses II was known for his elongated nose, so to ensure he would be recognized as a king in the afterlife, bone and seeds were surgically inserted under the skin of his nose after the desiccation of mummification, to restore and exaggerate its original shape.

2. India, 600 B.C.E.: Nose Reconstruction

Science Direct

In an era where cutting off the nose of an adulterer or crook was a common punishment, one doctor sought to encourage forgiveness and decrease public shaming of criminals. Sushruta wrote of many corrective surgeries, including the ear surgery pictured above, in Sushruta Samhita (Sushruta's compendium), but focused on nasal reconstruction. His method involved cutting a flap of skin from the cheek to cover the mutilated area. He then inserted two reeds or tubes, to ensure the nostrils didn't heal closed, rubbed the new nose with an abrasive powder, and dressed it in clean cloth, which irritated it and caused it to start healing. Later Indian surgeons used an attached skin flap from the forehead, which they then rotated down, to cover the mutilated nose.

3. Rome, 1st century B.C.E. -  5th century C.E.: Body Modification

Romans were notorious for their idolization of the perfect body, and viewed congenital and injury-based deformities with suspicion and mockery. Aulus Cornelius Celsus, in De re Medicina (14-37 C.E.), described surgeries that hid scars on the back, reduced gynecomastia (increased breast tissue in males), repaired genital deformities, and used skin flaps to fix nasal and ear-lobe injuries. Celsus' work remained the primary reference guide for plastic surgery for the next 1700 years.

4. Rome, 129-216 C.E.: Eyelid Adjustment and Early Nose Jobs

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Increased obsession with the body during the time of Galen led to even more advances in plastic surgery. Blepharoplasty (adjustment of the eyelids) was used to fix persistently drooping or squinting eyes. There is also evidence that Galen performed aesthetic rhinoplasties on the wealthy, which is the first time purely cosmetic plastic surgery was described. Unfortunately, only 20 of Galen's 600 texts survive, so the procedures he used are not known, and his plastic surgery is only briefly mentioned. 

Between 7th-14th century C.E., the spread of Christianity throughout Europe during the Middle Ages led to surgery being deemed "sinful" and "pagan." The power a surgeon had to spill blood and modify the body was almost akin to magic. This belief was established near the fall of the Roman empire, but was formally declared by Pope Innocent III in the 12th century. Modifying the human body was a punishable offense.

5. Sicily, 1415: The Indian Method to the Italian Method

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Against the law of the church, surgeon Branca de'Branca used the "Indian method" to restore the nose of a man who lost his in a duel. His son Antonio Branca improved upon the method, using a flap of skin from the upper arm to restore the nose. Though it left less scarring, the method required holding the arm behind the head for 20 days, which was incredibly uncomfortable. Antonio's method became known as the "Italian method."

6. Turkey, 1465: Treating Facial Fractures

Şerefeddin Sabuncuoğlu published Cerrahiyyet’ül Haniyye (Imperial Medicine) at the age of 80. In addition to being the first illustrated text on pediatric surgery, many of Celsus and Galen's plastic surgery methods were included. Many of the old Greek and Roman texts made their way to the Islamic world, and were preserved despite the attempts to destroy them in Europe. Sabuncuoğlu also illustrated treatment of facial fractures to avoid deformity as they healed.

7. 1597: The Italian Method, Continued

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Gaspare Tagliacozzi wrote Die Curtorum Chiurgia, detailing and illustrating the "Italian method" of nasal reconstruction developed by Antonio Branca. By this point in history, syphilis (and its "cures") had erupted as a major cause of deformity in Europe, and Tagliacozzi made a name for himself reconstructing noses and lips that were destroyed by disease or injury. However, the noses he formed from the skin of the arm did not always "take" well, and would occasionally come off if blown or struck too hard.

8. Europe, 17th-18th centuries: Early Rhinoplasty

Science Museum

Shortly after Tagliacozzi's death, the counterreformation came down harshly on surgery, and it was once again a punishable offense to the Catholic church. Surgery continued in the East, however, and in 1794, two British surgeons residing in India witnessed the "Indian rhinoplasty" being performed on a former prisoner who'd had his nose cut off in punishment. Shortly after continental surgeons began performing this procedure back in Europe, Karl Ferdinand von Graefe published Rhinoplastik. This was the first use of "plastic" in reference to reconstructive surgery, and the first known use of the term "rhinoplasty." Von Graefe used the Indian method for many patients, and developed a method to create a nose on the patient's arm, before transplanting it onto the face. Like Tagliacozzi's method for nasal reconstruction, this nose could come off if blown too hard.

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10. Virginia, USA, 1820s-40s: Reconstructive Surgery


John Peter Mettauer and his sons established a thriving practice in Prince Edward County, VA, first specializing in repairing genital anomalies, and later working in all fields of reconstructive surgery. In 1827, John Mettauer performed the first successful hard cleft palate repair in the Americas. The use of "bone flaps" (previously only skin and muscle had been transplanted) was a significant step forward in major reconstructive surgery. The innovative techniques and tools that Dr. Mettauer devised, and a life dedicated to his craft, have led to him being considered "America's first plastic surgeon."

11. London, 1910s-1950s: Reconstructing Facial Features and Sex Change Operations

Harold Gillies and his team at The Queen's Hospital at Sidcup used skin flaps from unaffected parts of the body to reconstruct facial features on soldiers from both World Wars. Harold Gillies also performed one of the first female-to-male sex change operations in 1946, and the first modern male-to-female sex change operation in 1951, using what he learned about pedicles and flaps by reconstructing the faces of soldiers. The "flap" procedure used in the male-to-female operation was the standard for over 40 years.

Sources: National Geographic News; "History of plastic surgery in India." J Postgrad Med 2002;48:76; Aspects of the history of plastic surgery since the 16th century. J Royal Soc Med 1983;76:152 [PDF]; Berke, Andreas; Vogel, Wolfgang. Brief History of Vision and Ocular Medicine;The History of Plastic Surgery; Beautiful Body: A History of Plastic Surgery; BBC; A Sketch of Dr. John Peter Mettauer.

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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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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]