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13 Ailments 19th-Century Doctors Said Electrostatic Could Cure

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Static electricity has been known to humanity for thousands of years—and for almost as long, electricity has been thought to have healing (if not magical) properties. In the late Renaissance, thoughts of electrical current and static electricity were brought back in vogue, and their incorporation into medicine was hypothesized once again.

Hypotheses are one thing, but the discovery of an efficient and relatively inexpensive way to conduct electricity in the 19th century is what really changed the field for physicians. Static electricity was the name of the game, and it was a hot subject for almost 100 years. What could static electricity cure? Anything, of course!

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1. Cure your headaches with a “static breeze” raining down on you!

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2. “Brain troubles” are easily cured with an electrode to the forehead.

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3. Putting plants in solenoids seemed to work wonders—why not put yourself in one, if your digestive tract leaves something to be desired?

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4. Sciatica is no match for this shocking wand!


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5. Joint pain and rheumatism are the worst—get rid of it quick by zapping it away.

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6. If you’re feeling a bit down, get revitalized in this high-frequency autoconduction cage! Just stand there for 30 minutes, and you’ll be as rejuvenated as a spring rabbit.

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7. Electrostatic facial pads will eliminate sinusitis in just 10 to 14 days! No, really, it’s the pads getting rid of that gunk in your head, why don’t you trust me?

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8. Appendix problems? Appendicitis, even? Electrostatics are the answer!

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9. Once you put this metal collar on, your rib pain will go away for sure—trust me, I’m a doctor!

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10. For pleurisy or bronchitis, sustained mild shock is the way to go.

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11. Pinkeye problems? No problem! Just “bathe” your infected eyes in a vacuum tube of static.

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12. Broke your thumb? Don’t use a bulky bandage to stabilize it; electrify it!

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13. Lumbago hurts! Get the pep back in your step by leaning over just a little farther...

Of course, we know today that while electrical shocks have some application in medicine, and electricity is useful in innumerable ways to help power medical tools, static electricity does very little beneficial to the human body. Still, you can't beat the style of true Victorian fashion, elegant wooden cases, and the bizarre contraptions that the world of electrostatic medicine reveled in!

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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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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:

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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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