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Vin Mariani ad, via The Atlantic

5 Forgotten Drug Fads

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Vin Mariani ad, via The Atlantic

Some drugs have dynamite PR. Methamphetamine pervades pop culture, iconized by a scowling Walter White and his pork pie hat. Crack cocaine, a mainstay of big-city life since the 1980s, remains in public consciousness with the help of hapless Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Even bath salts and their designer-drug consorts got some well-earned name recognition two summers ago, as sensational headlines howled of faces eaten and an imminent zombie apocalypse.

Other drugs are less fortunate. They wilt into obscurity, remembered only in the footnotes of old news articles. Let us take you through five of the world’s most bizarre and forgotten drug fads.

1. Vin Mariani

Before purified cocaine seeped into the American market in the late 19th century, a cocktail of red Bordeaux and coca leaf extract called Vin Mariani gained popularity across the United States and Europe. Pope Leo XIII awarded the coca-infused wine a shiny gold medal from the Vatican and the drink garnered celebrity endorsements from Thomas Edison, Jules Verne, and Frederic Bartholdi, the French sculptor who designed the Statue of Liberty. Ulysses S. Grant even relied on that little extra kick while writing his post-presidential memoirs. (It obviously worked—Mark Twain lauded the memoirs as a “literary masterpiece.”) The original version of Coca-Cola, introduced in 1886, similarly touted itself as “the ideal brain tonic” thanks to its cocaine content.

2. Jimson Weed

Wikimedia Commons

Also known as Datura stramonium or "locoweed," Jimson weed has its roots in the fine arts. In Homer’s Odyssey, the nymph Circe poisons Odysseus’ crew with a potion of “malignant drugs,” which modern scientists have hypothesized to be stramonium. In the Léo Delibes opera Lakmé, the titular character uses Jimson weed in her suicide. And in Sandro Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, one historian argues, the slumbering Mars might actually be stoned from the Datura stramonium that appears to be painted in the corner. The plant, also used in ancient Chinese and Indian rituals as well as for asthma treatment, causes fever, dry mouth, and vivid hallucinations, all of which could last for hours or even days. Though Jimson weed isn't a popular drug in the 21st century, hospitals occasionally have to treat someone who has fallen for its spell.

3. Mescaline

Wikimedia Commons

Use of mescaline today is nowhere near as widespread as it once was—it’s difficult to synthesize and unable to compete with the more popular LSD. The psychedelic drug is the active amphetamine in the peyote cactus, which grows in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico and has held deep cultural significance for Native American groups for thousands of years. Each button on a peyote cactus contains a very small amount of mescaline and can be chewed, ground into powder, or soaked in water to produce a liquid. And though mescaline has abundant side effects—among them numbness, muscle twitches, intense nausea, and violence—it was popular amongst a wide spectrum of creative types. The drug has captivated everyone from Aldous Huxley to George Carlin to Melissa Joan Hart. Clarissa, explain yourself.

4. Toad-Smoking

Cane toad, via Wikimedia Commons

The compound bufotenin, found in the milky venom of many Bufo genus toads, can be converted into a form of the psychedelic compound DMT. These toads secrete their venom as defense against predators, but applying pressure to their parotoid glands on the back of their heads can also release the bufotenin, along with other toxic compounds. At certain concentrations, the venom can be fatal.

Australia imported the cane toad from Hawaii in 1935 to destroy rampant, destructive beetles. Decades later, daring Aussies began licking live toads to test their psychoactive potential. Americans also developed a taste for the dangerous secretion, particularly that of the Sonoran Desert toad, before discovering a far more efficient way to get high—by smoking its dried venom from a pipe. A 1994 L.A. Times headline sums up this fad neatly: “The quest for new highs has led some seekers to a new low.”

5. Quaaludes

'The Wolf of Wall Street,' Paramount Pictures

Quaaludes owe a big thanks to Martin Scorsese and The Wolf of Wall Street for lobbing them back into the national conversation this winter. Created in the 1950s by Indian researchers searching for a malaria cure, methaqualone offered a safer alternative to addictive barbiturates and became a popular sleeping pill marketed under various names. Quaaludes—a portmanteau for “quiet interlude”—was one such brand.

By the late 1960s, a black market flourished as college students began to abuse the drug. A decade later, Quaalude users began combining the potent drug with alcohol to “’lude out”—a practice which at best reduced stress and lowered inhibitions and at worst could lead to liver failure, respiratory arrest, or death. Indeed, the drug had tragic consequences: The beloved Freddie Prinze committed suicide under its influence and it was one of many substances found in 42-year-old Elvis Presley when he died. The DEA finally labeled it a Schedule I Controlled Substance in 1984.

Bonus: The Bananadine Hoax

If the prospect of scraping, boiling, and drying the insides of banana peels to yield a psychoactive drug called “Bananadine” seems like a real stretch, that’s because it is. Theories on this hoax’s origins vary, but most agree that its first written account was in a March 3, 1967 editorial for the Berkeley Barb, a Bay Area underground weekly. Columnist Ed Denson wrote that he had been “turned on to bananas” during a trip to Vancouver, offering up the instructions for extracting Bananadine as his “recipe of the week.” “This recipe has been hinted at in earlier literature, and the high is thought to be something like an opium high,” he wrote. That same issue of the Barb also contained a letter to the editor from an anonymous reader who claimed to have seen the Berkeley police “narco squad” sniffing around the produce section for suspicious-looking banana buyers.

Mainstream media outlets fell hard for the hoax. The University of Michigan’s student newspaper ran a story headlined, “Cheap ‘Trip’ Ticket, Students Say: You Can Fly High on Banana Peel.” By late March the New York Times and Wall Street Journal chimed in, reporting that an alarming number of hippies were tripping on banana peels. Finally, the FDA mounted what it called a “very complex” weeks-long investigation of Bananadine’s possible hallucinogenic or euphoric qualities, only to find that it had none. Subsequent studies, to the surprise of many, confirmed the placebo effect. Case closed.

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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
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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