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7 Antiquated Illness Names and Their Meanings

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Throughout the ages, people have hung some pretty weird names on what’s ailed them. While many diseases took their monikers from a primitive understanding of the human body and the burgeoning scientific practice of using Latin and Greek nomenclature as the basis of medicine, others emerged colloquially as, more or less, the symptoms the affliction presented. Here are a few of the stranger ones, and how we know them today.

1. Then: Dropsy
Now: Edema

Essentially water retention, edema mainly afflicts those with congestive heart failure whose bodies are unable to eliminate fluid effectively. The archaic term originated in the Middle English “dropesie” via the Old French “hydropsie” via the Greek “hydrops” via the ancient Greek “hydor,” which means, you guessed it, water. Leave it to Shakespearean times to make something as silly-sounding as possible.

2. Then: Black Death
Now: Bubonic Plague

To be fair, even “Bubonic Plague” has a ring of whimsy, but there was nothing humorous (no pun intended) about it. Among the most ravaging pandemics in human history, the Plague raged in Europe from 1348 to 1350 and is estimated to have killed nearly 100 million people. Historians now know that the disease was caused by a bacterium, Yersinia pestis, which was transmitted from rat to flea to human. “Bubonic” comes from the Greek word for “groin,” and was so named for the swollen groin lymph nodes that a plague victim would exhibit at its onset. It took on the conversational “black” designation in a poetic nod to the dread and mourning left in its wake. Then again, it could aptly have been a physical description of a late-stage victim, who’d likely be unconscious or delirious and suffering from bleeding under the skin and widespread gangrene, making their skin appear black.

3. Then: Dry Bellyache
Now: Lead poisoning

Before we knew just how toxic lead is to humans, it was used for centuries in the production of both paint and rum. When painters and distillers began presenting symptoms ranging from abdominal pain and headaches to anemia and seizures, doctors were baffled and dubbed the condition “Dry Bellyache” and “Painters Colic.” What they didn’t realize was that constant exposure to the heavy concentration of lead in pre-industrialized paint and in the stills used to make rum was slowly poisoning the workers. Fortunately, science caught on to its effects, and the use of lead in manufacturing has dropped dramatically over the past few decades. However, the EPA warns that it still presents a threat owing to old lead paint in houses, soil and water contamination from outdated lead-based fixtures, and the small amount of lead still used in products such as bullets, ceramic glaze, and vinyl mini window blinds. Just in case you needed another reason to avoid vinyl mini blinds.

4. Then: King’s Evil
Now: Scrofula

Tuberculosis may very well be one of mankind’s oldest maladies, with human remains from 4000 BC showing signs of tubercular decay. Long feared and, until the past century, poorly understood, the bacteria would wreak havoc on a person’s lung tissue, literally consuming it from the inside. Scrofula is, essentially, TB of the lymph nodes in the neck. In the Middle Ages, when kings were considered divine, many believed that royalty could cure disease with nothing more than their touch. The “King’s Evil” ceremony typically featured the monarch bestowing “touched” coins or amulets on the suffering, which they would then wear and hope to be cured. The practice was so common that, by the Restoration, Charles II is rumored to have touched some 90,000 consumptives in a 22 year period. Obviously, people still died in legion, but the custom persisted in England, and then France, for another 200 years. Give ’em a break. The learning curve was slower in those days.

5. Then: Scrivener’s Palsy
Now: Writer’s cramp

Long before we could just rest our hands on a keyboard and churn out page after page with little effort, writer’s cramp was a serious and sometimes debilitating condition. The most frequently afflicted were scriveners—those whose job it was to take dictations and keep records at a time when very few people knew how to read and write. As their numbers were so few, they were in high demand and, likely, overworked. Some scriveners would experience loss of precision muscle control in their hands, as well as weakness, pain, and trembling. Cases could be severe, with referred pain spreading to the arms, legs, and jaw, and sometimes lead to total disability. Though writer’s cramp is still with us, scientists have come to believe that, along with other focal dystonia, it’s the result of a neurological malfunction that affects specific muscle groups. Local Botox injections have been shown to ease symptoms, with the added bonus of ageless-looking hands.

6. Then: Milk Leg
Now: Phlegmasia alba dolens

Also known as deep vein thrombosis, this condition was, and still is, seen often later in pregnancy and in women who have recently given birth. Sometimes, as the uterus enlarges in preparation for delivery, the common iliac vein—which runs from the lower abdomen to the upper thigh—will press against the pelvis and cause a blood clot to form. If the condition persists, normal circulation becomes impossible and the leg will swell painfully. The dairy designation may have caught on because of the pale color the leg will take (phlegmasia alba dolens translates to “painful white edema”), or because the swelling was thought to be an accumulation of milk in the expectant mother’s limb, a now-laughable idea.

7. Then: Dancing Mania
Now: Mass psychogenic illness

Sounds awesome, right? From the 14th to 17th century in Europe, thousands of people were suddenly and without reason moved to dance uncontrollably with little regard to how ridiculous they looked. What’s really changed, you ask? Well, at the height of the phenomenon, choreomania (from the Greek “choros” for dance and “mania” for madness) was known to waylay both men and women, children and the elderly, who would form groups and scream, sing, and dance for days on end until they’d collapse from exhaustion or, occasionally, dance themselves to death. Diagnoses throughout the ages have included epilepsy and Sydenham chorea, a side effect of the Streptococcus bacteria. Historians now generally agree that the movement was a mass psychogenic illness, a form of mass hysteria, in which a group exhibits similar physical symptoms because of social influence that have no recognizable physical cause. And all this without the help of Beiber.

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]