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Photo by Flickr user Smithsonian Institution

6 Bizarre Items Mailed Through the U.S. Postal System

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Photo by Flickr user Smithsonian Institution

Today, the familiar phrase from Herodotus’ work is engraved on the outside of the James A. Farley Post Office building in New York City: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” But when Herodotus originally wrote the phrase in 500 B.C., he undoubtedly didn’t anticipate that an entire country of Americans would put that slogan to the test. In fact, since the beginning of the U.S. Postal Service in 1775, mischievous citizens have constantly pushed the envelope when it came to challenging their local mailmen. Here are a few strange things that have been sent through the mail.

1. People

One of the earliest tales of beating the mail system occurred in 1849 with the escape of Virginia slave Henry “Box” Brown. One night, Brown had a dream to “mail [himself] to a place where there are no slaves.” With $86 in hand, Brown enlisted the help of a local storekeeper to box him up with water and biscuits and send him north to freedom. James Miller McKim, a Philadelphia abolitionist, agreed to receive the box. The trip began on March 23. While the journey only lasted 27 hours, Brown’s box was passed from wagon to railroad to steamboat and back again. The box often ended up upside down, but Brown remained quiet enough to avoid discovery. On March 24, Brown arrived in Philadelphia and was released as a free man.

That wasn’t the only case of shipping people by mail. In 1914, 5-year-old May Pierstorff was sent from Grangeville, Idaho to visit her grandmother in Lewiston, Idaho. When it came time to buy tickets, Pierstorff’s parents discovered that sending their daughter through parcel post was cheaper than buying fare. Pierstorff, who weighed less than the 50-pound weight limit, was sent through the mail at the chicken rate. Before Pierstorff boarded the train, her parents clipped 53 cents to her coat and sent her on her way. Upon arrival in Lewiston, the postmaster personally delivered the young girl to her grandmother’s house. Six years later, the practice of shipping humans through parcel post became illegal.

2. Diseases

In the August 7, 1895 issue of The New York Times, Miss Daisy James from the New York Post Office noted that dead birds and other small animals were sent to taxidermists throughout the country. She also handled various strains of smallpox, diphtheria, and scarlet fever that were shipped by physicians to the national Health Board.

3. Buildings

The largest thing to be sent through the mail was a building. In 1916, a young businessman by the name of William H. Coltharp decided to construct a new bank on the corner of a street in Vernal, Utah. Of course, Coltharp couldn’t send a completed building through the mail, wall by wall. But Coltharp wanted the best bricks in the area and decided to have those bricks sent from the Salt Lake Pressed Brick Company—all 80,000 of them. He reasoned that parcel post was the most inexpensive way to ship the bricks for construction, and he carefully packaged the bricks in separate crates weighing less than the 50-pound weight limit. Somewhere around 40 crates were shipped each time, and each shipment weighed roughly one ton collectively. It was Coltharp’s infamous scheme that prompted the U.S. Postal Service to change their rules so that a customer could only send 200 pounds of goods per day. Their reasoning? “It is not the intent of the U.S. Postal Service that buildings be shipped through the mail.”

4. Pets

Some patrons have resorted to sending their beloved pets through the postal system. In December 1954, a man named David from Fostoria, Ohio decided to send his pet chameleon through the mail to the much warmer Orlando, Florida. On December 7, David received the following note from Orlando’s postmaster: “Dear David, I received your chameleon yesterday and he was immediately released on the post office grounds. Best wishes for a merry Christmas!”

5. Diamonds

By far, the most expensive item to be shipped through the mail was the allegedly cursed Hope Diamond. In November 1958, Harry Winston donated the diamond to the Smithsonian Institution for the National Jewel Collection. Valued at over $1 million at the time, the diamond was shipped to the museum for only $145.29, which was mostly package insurance for the precious gem.

6. Skis, deer tibias, and dead fish

Even today, individuals still test the limits of our country’s postal service. In 2000, a team of social scientists from the science-humor magazine Improbable Research conducted a study to see what bizarre items they could sneak through the post office. The team broke the proposed items into six categories: valuable items, sentimental items, unwieldy items, pointless items, suspicious items, and disgusting items.

Among the valuable items was a pair of “new, expensive tennis shoes” that were bound together by duct tape. The shoes took only seven days to reach their destination, and a mail clerk along the way tightly tied the laces together in a knot. For one of the sentimental items, the researchers sent a molar tooth to themselves in a clear plastic box. After 14 days, the tooth was delivered in a repackaged mailer and accompanied with a note: “Please be advised that human remains may not be transported through the mail, but we assumed this to be of sentimental value, and made an exception in your case.”

The researchers continued their study with the “unwieldy items” category by sending a ski through the mail. After affixing a large amount of postage to the single ski, the researchers distracted the local mailman and stuffed the ski into a bin of postage being loaded in the truck. Eleven days later, the ski was delivered. “Pointless items” were packages that appeared to be a prank. Researchers sent one fresh, green coconut from Hawaii to their office. It arrived in only 10 days, completely intact. The team also sent a street sign—which could have easily been a stolen item possessed illegally—to themselves. This item, part of the “suspicious items” category, made it to the local post office in nine days.

Finally, the individuals finished their study by sending items from the “disgusting” category on their list. In all, the team sent a deer tibia, a large wheel of rancid cheese, and dead fish through the mail. All of the items were delivered within nine days, although the postal clerks were especially concerned with the team’s motives. They asked the group if they were part of a cult and warned them against being fined for mail service abuse.

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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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iStock
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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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