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Mutter Museum

The Bizarre Art of Binding Books in Human Skin

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Mutter Museum

Helpful as its developments are, the field of modern medicine can be macabre, sickening, and even downright strange. We’ve left the leeches and holy water in the Middle Ages (for the most part), but some of the ideas that doctors have cooked up in the past two centuries in the name of science have exceeded anything ever done over a twitching plague victim. One such head-scratcher is a hobby of 19th century physician Joseph Leidy, who remembered his deceased patients by tanning their skin and using it to bind his favorite medical textbooks.

Yes, you read that right.

The dedication on the frontispiece of Leidy’s personal copy of his book An Elementary Treatise on Human Anatomy reads:

“The leather with which this book is bound is human skin, from a soldier who died during the great Southern Rebellion.” 

The binding itself looks soft, almost tender in its smooth beige ridges. One wonders what part of that nameless corporal or private it came from.

The bizarre art of binding books in human skin, or anthropodermic bibliopegy, dates back to at least the 17th century, and involves flaying the body and tanning the skin just like any other type of leather. It has most often been used by doctors as a way to honor a deceased patient or medical colleague, meaning that many surviving examples are anatomical texts such as Leidy’s. Several American universities, including Harvard and the University of Georgia, quietly keep an anthropodermic book or two (Brown supposedly has three), and the University of Pennsylvania library had to put in a distress call to the Admissions office after a tour guide happened to mention their rare skin-bound copy of Biblotheque Nationale and the library was flooded with curious potential students.

The donor of UPenn’s anthropodermic treasure, John Stockton Hough, was in fact a colleague of Dr. Leidy, a prominent Philadelphia physician who taught in the university’s dissection labs in the 1850s through the 1880s. Fairly obscure today, Leidy was well regarded in his lifetime as an anatomist, zoologist, paleontologist, and parasite expert. Besides publishing his anatomical treatise and treating Pennsylvania’s Civil War wounded, he put together the first near-complete skeleton of dinosaur fossils found in New Jersey and became an early advocate for Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Today, Leidy’s collection is on display at the College of Physicians’ Mütter Museum of medical oddities (a great way to spend an afternoon if you’re ever in Philly and hankering for a gallstone collection or a couple of deformed fetuses in jars). The dimly-lit shelf where Leidy’s book sits quietly next to a human-skin wallet and other examples of memorial tannery appears to be regarded impassively by a collection of European skulls, flanked by a section of primate skulls for comparison and by a handful of antique gynecological instruments. Elsewhere in the museum, on the floor above the death cast of conjoined “Siamese” twins Chang and Eng Bunker and the world’s largest colon, lies one of Leidy’s other great donations, a cadaver known as the Soap Lady: her 200-year-old corpse took on its black, sticky appearance when the heat and pressure of her grave transformed the fat in her body into a soapy substance called adipocere.

The emphasis of both the display of Dr. Leidy’s skin-bound books and the museum as a whole is that the curiosities on display are there for educational and even artistic purposes; they’re not simply freaks, or unfortunate quirks of the gene pool, but deeply human artifacts that can help us to riddle out the mysteries of disease and suffering. Just as the cadavers in his 1800s dissecting classroom helped Leidy teach his students the internal wonders of the human body, his book collection helps us to puzzle out what’s left on the outside after we die, and how it can be useful or beautiful when preserved from the ravages of time and decay.

Barnes & Noble bookstores’ website still offers a free copy of Leidy’s anatomical treatise, by the way, reprinted from the 1889 edition. It’s only an e-book, though, so the skin binding will have to be left up to you.  

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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]