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11 Weird (But Awesome) Things at the Mütter Museum

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The Mütter Museum was founded in 1858, when Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter donated a collection of medical anomalies, anatomical and pathological specimens, and bizarre medical instruments to the museum. Its original purpose was to continue medical education and research in the heart of Philadelphia. From the conjoined livers from a pair of Siamese twins to slides of Albert Einstein’s brain, the Mütter Museum houses dozens of strange artifacts from medical history. Here are 11 of our favorites.

1. Adopt a Skull

One of the museum’s most popular exhibits is a display of 139 skulls collected by Viennese anatomist Joseph Hyrtl in the 1800s. Dead men may tell no tales, but each of these skulls conveys a unique and interesting story. One skull belonged to a famous tightrope walker who fell and broke his neck. Another skull belonged to a Finnish sailor who died of gunshot wounds. The museum recently began an initiative to encourage visitors to adopt a skull. For $200, the donor pays for the cleaning, restoration, and remounting of the skull, which is then placed next to a small plaque bearing the donor’s name.

2. Slice of a Human Face

The curator of the Mütter Museum, Anna Dhody, created a series of YouTube videos documenting some of the items in the museum’s collections. In this video, she shows us a bilateral cross-section of the human face. Dr. Matthew Cryer, a physician and dentist who was around during the early 1900s, prepared the slice to study the development of oral and sinus cavity formation and development. The museum has at least 400 other similar samples in its collection.

3. Rib Bones of a Person with Rickets

The museum also owns pieces of rib bones that were from a person with rickets. Rickets is a disease caused by a deficiency in vitamin D and results in the softened bones.

4. Jar of Picked Human Skin

One of the stranger artifacts in the museum is a jar of picked human skin. So… what does a jar of picked human skin smell like? According to Dr. Robert Hicks, the director of the museum, a jar of picked human skin smells faintly like Romano cheese.

5. Hippopotamus Fat from the Zulus in South Africa

Most of us have at least one crazy aunt in our family who swears by alternative medicine. But have you ever heard of hippopotamus fat? According to Dr. Hicks, the Zulus in South Africa used hippo fat to cure stomachaches. They also used it to create “chemistry” between animals to encourage them to mate.

6. Aphrodisiac Made From Elephant’s Tusk

The Zulus also contributed human aphrodisiacs to the Mütter Museum. Over a century ago, the Zulus collected a powdery substance called daga from the inside of an elephant tusk after the elephant had just been killed. They believed that by secretly pouring the powder into a woman’s drink or food, they would make the woman fall deeply in love with them.

7. World War I Hand Therapy Device

Today’s medical technology has come a long way since the devices used at the beginning of the 20th century. Back in World War I, doctors used a primitive wooden device for hand therapy. When soldiers' hands and fingers were injured during war, they would use the machine to stretch their muscles and increase circulation.

8. Bedbugs Extracted From a Patient’s Ear

If you live in a big city, you have probably heard of the dreaded bedbugs – blood-sucking insects that stow away in clothes, bedding, or even on the human body. At the Mütter Museum, they have a jar of bedbugs that were extracted from a patient’s ear.

9. Section of Small Intestine

In 1849, the city of Philadelphia experienced an outbreak of cholera, and the incident killed 1012 people. A section of the small intestine from one of these people was collected and placed in a jar to be studied and put on display.

10. Human Feet

One of the weirder collections of the Mütter Museum is its jar of amputated feet. The feet were taken from a patient suffering from diabetes. The patient, who did not adequately maintain the disease, suffered from necrosis—the death of body tissue.

11. Book Bound in Human Skin

The museum also features a book written in the 1700s that explains how women become pregnant and what happens during the different stages of pregnancy. And while an 18th century explanation of pregnancy is probably pretty interesting, that’s not the weirdest thing about this book. In the 1880s, a physician took skin from a woman’s thigh, boiled it in a chamber pot in the hospital, and used it to bind the book.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

501069-OpeningCeremony3.jpg

Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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