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The Historical Horror of Childbirth

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Childbirth in much of human history has been a class act. The upper classes were encouraged to reproduce as much as possible, and a woman who was pregnant or recovering from childbirth took time to rest while servants took care of her and the child. The lower classes worked right up to and soon following birth, as they had to work to eat. The upper classes also had the latest medical knowledge at their fingertips, but this wasn't always such a good thing.

Photograph from The Victoria and Albert Museum.

Class distinctions in childbirth during the Renaissance were recorded. In 15th-century Florence, women were married as teenagers and often had five to ten children, depending on whether she survived childbirth. Childbirth was so dangerous that a woman would make out her will as soon as she found out she was pregnant. An age-old method of birth control is extended breastfeeding, which is nature's way of spacing out children. However, the custom among the upper classes was to farm out breastfeeding to wet nurses, which meant that the mother would soon be pregnant again.

It was during the Renaissance that medical doctors began to take part in childbirth, although not without a struggle. Women as whole were sheltered and their bodies hidden under plenty of clothing. It was unseemly for any man to take part in the intimate process of childbirth, and midwives did not want to give up their power or expertise in the area. Midwives had experience on their side; physicians had the authority that comes with the title. Therefore, most of the writings and advice from the period come from prominent physicians, and a lot of their advice was guesswork.  

Three women were pregnant when they boarded the Mayflower on its journey to America. One child, Oceanus Hopkins, was born during the voyage and died during the first winter in Massachusetts. Another, Peregrine White, was born shipboard off Cape Cod and lived to an old age. The third child was stillborn at Plymouth; the mother died in childbirth. Such stories were not at all shocking, as a woman's chances of dying during childbirth were between one and two percent -for each birth. If a woman gave birth to eight or ten children, her chances of eventually dying in childbirth were pretty high. The infant mortality rate was even higher. The chances of a child dying before his fifth birthday were estimated to be around 20 percent, depending on the community (accurate records are scarce). In addition to the fear of death or the fear of the child dying, there was no pain relief during labor, except for whisky in some places. In Puritan communities, pain during childbirth was God's punishment for Eve and all women who came afterward.

Motherhood in early America was even more frightening for slaves. Infant mortality among African and African-American slaves in the 18th century ranged from 28-50 percent, and mortality in children under ten was 40-50 percent, due to maternal malnutrition, overwork, disease, and lack of medical access. Slave owners blamed the mothers for infant deaths, and there is evidence that some babies were deliberately smothered to spare the child a life of slavery, but other factors contributed greatly to the infant death rate.

As Europe became more crowded in the 17th and 18th centuries, communicable diseases caused even more frequent deaths in childbirth. Puerperal fever had been around, but the rise of physician-assisted births increased its rate. It is a bacterial infection that became apparent within days of giving birth. The rise of maternity wards in hospitals meant that many women gave birth within shouting distance of each other. Doctors, in those days before germ theory, went from patient to patient, unknowingly carrying the bacteria on their instruments and their unwashed hands. In the 1790s, Alexander Gordon stressed that the disease was spread from one patient to another. He "bled" his patients at the first sign of puerperal fever, which actually helped in some cases, but no one understood why. In 1842, Thomas Watson recommended that physicians and birth attendants wash their hands and use chlorine between patients. In 1847, Ignaz Semmelweis reduced the rate of fever in his obstetric ward by ordering hand washing, but the idea was still rejected by the medical industry at large. A famous victim of puerperal fever was Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. In 1797 she gave birth to her daughter Mary with the assistance of a midwife. But then a doctor was called to help remove the placenta and he came quickly, with unwashed hands. Wollstonecraft died a painful but typical death over the next week.

Photograph by Billy Hathorn.

Pioneers who settled the American West didn't have it much better than their eastern or European counterparts. Both doctors and midwives were scarce, and the midwives who were able to help in childbirth rarely had more knowledge than the experience of giving birth themselves. Infant mortality remained high, but the isolation of living on wilderness farmland many miles away from settled towns had one advantage: the spread of disease was lessened somewhat.

Childbirth changed dramatically in the 19th century with the introduction of anesthetics. Dentist William Morton developed the use of ether for surgery in 1846. Obstetrician Sir James Young Simpson introduced chloroform as an anesthetic in 1847. Queen Victoria used chloroform during her eighth delivery in 1853. The practice of childbirth anesthesia spread quickly afterward, despite protests from the clergy, who claimed that labor pains are God's will.

In 1914, a method called Twilight Sleep was developed, which involved morphine and scopolamine. The mother slept through delivery, but the drugs also affected the baby, and sometimes the child didn't breathe at all. The morphine also caused some mothers to die in childbirth. 

Comic by Kate Beaton.

In the 20th century, advances in medicine and germ theory raced ahead of public health and the access of the lower classes to medical care. When Dr. Josephine Baker was appointed as city health inspector for the Hell's Kitchen area in 1901, she found that 1,500 newborn babies died in the district every week. Her crusade to improve prenatal care and child health practices involved inventing formula, opening clinics, launching a school lunch program, training babysitters, and opening milk stations in the city, and it resulted in a huge decrease in infant and child deaths.

Childbirth, though still an ordeal, is much safer today for mothers. Children are much more likely to survive to adulthood. And widely available birth control gives people the option of deciding when and how many children to have. But the hard part comes after childbirth -raising a family, which is more complicated every day. And that's why you should honor your mother this Mother's Day.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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