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8 Surprising Facts About Malaria

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YouTube / thelostdisney

Malaria kills roughly half a million people each year, and it infects hundreds of millions. Here are eight facts about the disease that may surprise you!

1. The Seven Dwarfs Helped Fight It

Disney made an animated film in 1943 called The Winged Scourge featuring the Seven Dwarfs. It was the first in a series of animated propaganda shorts dealing with public health issues, and the only to feature established Disney characters. I'll summarize this ten-minute video for you: mosquitoes transmit malaria, malaria is bad, so let's kill mosquitoes. With help from dwarves. (Snow White doesn't make an appearance.)

Note that around 0:45 in the video, we see that malaria is still established in the United States in the world map. Which leads us to...

2. It Wasn't Eliminated in the U.S. Until 1951

The typical definition for a disease being "eliminated" in a country is that no new cases arise there for three years. In the United States, 1951 was the year when we officially became malaria-free. 1951 isn't that long ago—it's only about three generations. If your parents or grandparents watched I Love Lucy when it premiered, they lived in a U.S. still plagued by malaria.

3. DDT Was the Primary Weapon in the U.S.

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DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) was seen as a miracle pesticide for killing mosquitoes, the vectors that spread malaria. Its pesticidal properties weren't discovered until 1939, but as soon as they were, the chemical was sprayed in massive quantities, both at home and abroad. Between 1947 and 1949, the CDC estimates that 4,650,000 homes in the U.S. were coated, on the inside, with DDT. That's in addition to huge outdoor spraying operations.

Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Müller won a Nobel Prize in 1948 for his discovery of DDT's pesticidal properties. In the 1940s and 1950s DDT was used around the world in huge quantities, though it eventually led to DDT-resistant insects. Since that time, organizations like the Innovative Vector Control Consortium have been established to identify a variety of sustainable insecticides.

Here's a short film showing DDT spraying in San Antonio. People of the era actually liked DDT for the most part, as it was quite effective at killing mosquitoes, but also killed fleas and other pests:

For another impressively dated DDT film, check out this 1945 War Department film. It's intense. Today, while pesticides including DDT are still used around the world, bed nets, anti-malarial drugs, and vector-control tools are major parts of malaria elimination efforts.

4. It's Only Transmitted by Female Mosquitoes

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Malaria is caused by a handful of Plasmodium parasites. Those parasites are transmitted by mosquitoes in the Anopheles genus—and actually, only the females. Why the females? Because only female mosquitoes drink blood (they enjoy delicious mammalian blood to feed their developing eggs); males are comparatively tame, feeding on nectar from plants. There's one more factor that makes female Anopheles mosquitoes creepily vampire-like: they tend to feed from dusk until dawn.

5. It Drove the Creation of the CDC

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Originally known as the Communicable Disease Center, the CDC was formed to fight malaria. It replaced the Office of Malaria Control in War Areas, a WWII-era agency that did exactly what you'd expect. The CDC was headquartered in Atlanta rather than Washington, D.C. because the South faced the worst threat from malaria. After a series of name changes, the "CDC" eventually became known as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

6. It Was Even a Problem in Jamestown

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English colonists unknowingly brought malaria to North America way back in 1607. The colony at Jamestown, Virginia was the first infection point, and the disease spread across the continent from there, killing as it went. It was even a significant source of deaths in the Civil War.

7. Its Name is Italian

"Malaria" comes from the Italian mal'aria, meaning "bad air." Romans believed that swamp fumes cause the illness, though indeed it was the swamp-dwelling mosquitoes that were to blame.

8. Eight Presidents Had It

At least four popes died from malaria, and at least eight U.S. Presidents suffered from malaria at various times. Here's a roundup from the Impatient Optimists blog (edited for clarity):

1. George Washington first contracted malaria at age 17 in Virginia, and while he did not die from the disease he suffered from recurring bouts throughout his life.

2. Abraham Lincoln also got the disease while growing up [in Illinois].

3. James Monroe got malaria when he visited a particularly swampy area of the Mississippi River. Bouts of the disease flared up for years afterwards.

4. Andrew Jackson contracted malaria while on the Seminole military campaigns in Florida.

5. Ulysses S. Grant suffered from frequent bouts of malaria in the late 1850s while living on a farm outside of St. Louis.

6. James A. Garfield acquired malaria at age 16 in Ohio.

7. Theodore Roosevelt came down with malaria after a visit to the Amazon rainforest. Although the bout did not kill him he returned to the U.S. weakened physically and spent many years in his bed.

8. John F. Kennedy contracted malaria while in the Solomon Islands during World World II where he served as a PT boat captain.

In addition to world leaders, lots of other adventurous folks have suffered from the disease, including Errol Flynn, Mahatma Gandhi, Ernest Hemingway, Sir David Attenborough, Christopher Columbus, Michael Caine, Jeremy Piven, Anderson Cooper, Chris Matthews, and Mother Teresa. (This list could go on all day, but you get the idea.)

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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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