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10 Facts About Poison

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This weekend, New York City’s American Museum of Natural History opens its latest exhibit, The Power of Poison. There, visitors will get up close and personal to poisonous creatures, visit a forensic lab to work through real-life poison cases, and see how poison can actually be used for good. We went to a preview of the exhibit; here are just a few things we learned.

1. There’s a reason we say “mad as a hatter”: In the 1800s, many hatters were poisoned by mercuric nitrate used to remove fur from animal skins; it made them behave irrationally and caused tremors, among other terrible effects. The use of mercury in hat making wasn’t banned by the U.S. government until 1941.

A beaver felt top hat. ©AMNH/C. Chesek

2. Another name for those afflicted by the mad hatter syndrome: The Danbury Shakes, named for Danbury, Connecticut, which for most of the 19th century was known as the “hatting capital of the world.”

3. As caterpillars, longwing butterflies feed on the poisonous passionflower, metabolizing the plant’s compounds before they can combine to create cyanide. The butterflies retain the poison, and their brightly colored wings let predators know that they’re toxic.

A flame butterfly caterpillar. ©AMNH/R. Mickens

4. Kalam speakers in Papua New Guinea have a name for the poisonous pitohui that means “bird whose bitter skin puckers the mouth.”

5. Howler Monkeys, which eat diets full of plant toxins, also munch on clay—which scientists suspect they eat to counteract the effects of the toxins.

6. It’s impossible to make yourself immune to substances like mercury, lead, and cyanide by taking small doses. Instead, they build up in the body and eventually cause death.

7. The Snow White fairytale—in which a witch takes a bite of an apple that, when Snow eats it, puts her into a deathlike state—isn’t that far fetched: There are poisons that make people appear dead, including pufferfish toxins and some snake venom, which interfere with the nerves that make muscles move. (But if Snow’s lung muscles were paralyzed, there would be no revival for her.) Sharing poisonous food happens in real life, too; one Malaysian trick involved putting poison on one side of a knife before cutting the food, ensuring that only one side would be toxic.

8. Mercury was used in a lot of medications, including children’s teething powder as recently as 1948. Even people like Abraham Lincoln and author Louisa May Alcott took medicines containing mercury.

©AMNH/C. Chesek

9. There were a number of objects people believed would protect them against poison, including amethysts, opals, and emeralds. Another was “dragon tongues”—or fossilized shark teeth—which Europeans living centuries ago wore as charms, dipping them into food to purify it of poison.

10. Not all poisons are bad! A compound in gila monster venom was found to lower blood sugar and is being used in a treatment for Type II diabetes, while scientists are exploring using the venom of the Chilean rose tarantula to treat muscular dystrophy.

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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]