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8 Drugs that Exist in Nature

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By Therese Oneill

Most drugs today, legal and otherwise, are synthesized in a laboratory. But most medical and recreational drugs originally began in the wild, growing naturally in forests, fields, and deserts. Some can still be found there. Here are some of the country's better known drugs, in their natural, pre-processed form.

1. Opium poppy (heroin, morphine, codeine)

Morphine is one of the many opiates that come from the opium poppy (above). The poppy is sliced while still in bud form, and the milky fluid (latex) that bleeds out is dried, becoming raw opium. Then a long process of adding dangerous chemicals, filtering, and cooking increases the potency of the drug. Heroin is a super-strong, quickly absorbed form of morphine, and the most intense use of opium. English researcher C.R. Wright accidentally created it for the first time in 1874 when he boiled morphine and acetic anhydride together on his stove.

2. Blue agave (Tequila)

Alcohol is unique in the world of drugs because it's made through the process of fermentation, not a particular basic ingredient. Fermentation occurs when yeast eats the sugars of whatever plant you're using, the by-product being ethanol (drinkable alcohol). In tequila, named for the Mexican town where it originated, the sugar comes from the beautiful blue agave. The center of the blue agave looks like pineapple. After it's roasted and mashed, it provides the sugar that, once properly rotted, leaves behind alcohol.

3. Coca leaves (cocaine)

Coca leaves, mostly grown in South America, have to go through some pretty ugly steps to become cocaine—powdered cement, gasoline soaks, and battery acid baths are all needed to condense the naturally occurring leaves into an illegal narcotic. The leaves themselves have been used by native populations for centuries as a (much milder) stimulant and medication. Spanish physician and botanist Nicolás Monardes described the effect of the leaves in 1569: "When they wished to make themselves drunk and out of judgment they chewed a mixture of tobacco and coca leaves which make them go as they were out of their wittes."

4. Ephedra sinica (Sudafed, meth)

This scraggly little bush, also called ma huang, has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries. If it sounds familiar, that's because decongestants like Sudafed once synthesized their main ingredient from ephedra (pseudoephedrine). Products containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine are very hard to find now, as the U.S. government considers it a controlled substance. The alkaloids in the plant can be abused, most commonly in the form of weight-loss drugs and meth production. Researching the plant, I couldn't find out if this plant was legal to own. I called the DEA to ask, and, well, they weren't sure either. But they politely researched their documents, and translated them to people-speak for me. It is legal to grow and own the ephedra sinica plant. You just have to register your herb garden with the government and submit to monitoring if you do.

5. Psilocybin mushroom (shrooms)

Psilocybin, the naturally occurring compound that causes the euphoria and psychedelic trips associated with shrooms, can be found in over 200 species of mushrooms, most of which grow wild in Mexico. Different mushrooms have different concentrations of psilocybin, even varying in which part of the fungus you eat. A word of advice to the adventure seeker: Shrooms can be indistinguishable from any number of lethally poisonous mushrooms. Consuming unknown mushrooms may send you on a trip that takes you much further than you intended.

6. Willow bark (aspirin)

Salicylic acid, found in willow bark, has cooled fevered brows across the world for millennia. Even Hippocrates, the father of medicine, used to recommend chewing the bark to reduce fevers and inflammation in his patients, around 300 B.C. The willow tree has strains native to Europe, China, and North America, all of which can be used in medicine. It was from this bark that scientists at the German company Bayer developed aspirin in 1897. An interesting side note: Bayer lost all its patents and trademarks in World War I, when the U.S. government seized the firm as spoils of war and auctioned it off to an American patent medicine company.

7. Sassafras root (ecstasy)

Root beer and sarsaparilla used to have actual sassafras oil in them for flavor. They don't anymore, since the chemical in the oil, safrole, is now a controlled substance. Distilled from the roots and bark of the sassafras tree, safrole is a key ingredient in the manufacture of ecstasy. Not in its original form, of course. It is the treatments with formaldehyde, paint thinner, and drain cleaner that make sassafras oil such a delightful thing to put inside your body.

8. Penicillium mold (penicillin)

Penicillin: The mighty, moldy world changer. It was the first drug to effectively combat bacterial infections, leading to cures of an untold number of afflictions, from strep to syphilis. It was discovered accidentally by Alexander Fleming in 1928. He forgot about a petri dish filled with staph bacteria he'd left out, and he discovered blue green penicillium mold growing all over it. Penicillium mold is an incredibly common species of mold, apt to grow on organic material wherever conditions are dank enough. Wherever the mold touched the staph, the bacteria was gone. Fleming didn't think it would work in people and never tried to make medicine out of it. That was done years later by Australian Nobel laureate Howard Walter Florey, together with the German Nobel laureate Ernst Chain and the English biochemist Norman Heatley.

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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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