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6 Surprisingly Fascinating Stockpiles

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Various companies, countries, and organizations stockpile resources around the world. From medicine to cheese to diamonds, stockpiles can save the day...or be used to manipulate market prices. Here are six examples of the coolest stockpiles out there.

1. The Cholera Vaccine Stockpile

What's in the stockpile: 2 million doses of oral cholera vaccine. The vaccine requires two rounds of dosing—so the 2 million doses can be given to 1 million people. Each dose has a 30-month shelf life.

What it's been used for: Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that 140,000 people in South Sudan were being given the vaccine, marking the first use of this stockpile. The South Sudanese recipients are living in temporary camps during ongoing fighting, and the conditions in the camps put them at high risk for a cholera outbreak. It's impossible to know whether a cholera outbreak would have occurred without vaccination, but it's clear that for those 140,000 people, one deadly risk has been avoided. The vaccine can also be flown in quickly at the beginning of an outbreak to prevent the spread of cholera.

Where the stockpile is: Hyderabad, India, where the vaccine is manufactured. You can read more about this stockpile in a Q&A from earlier this week.

Here's a photo from Twitter celebrating the completion of the first round of vaccination delivery:

Bonus points: The WHO also maintains similar stockpiles of yellow fever and meningitis vaccines.

2. The Strategic National Stockpile (SNS)

What's in the stockpile: A variety of medicines and medical supplies to be used in public health emergencies within the U.S. The CDC describes the stockpile as containing "antibiotics, chemical antidotes, antitoxins, life-support medications, IV administration, airway maintenance supplies, and medical/surgical items." It's huge, and it's designed to cope with multiple massive emergencies simultaneously.

What it's been used for: 11 million regimes of antiviral medications, plus 39 million "respiratory protection devices" (masks, respirators, etc.), were deployed from the SNS in 2009 during the H1N1 influenza pandemic. These supplies were sent to affected states based on population. SNS supplies were also deployed on 9/11, during the subsequent anthrax attacks, and after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Where the stockpile is: In "strategic locations" around the U.S. (in other words, it's classified.) The coolest feature of the SNS is the dozen "12-hour push packages," each a 50-ton mega-medicine package than can be deployed by air or ground to major cities in the U.S. within 12 hours after the order is given. (After 9/11, it took seven hours for a push package to arrive onsite.)

For more, consult this extensive document explaining the program. It's truly impressive.

3. Europe's Cotton Stockpile

"King Cotton" cotton plantation. Image courtesy Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons.

Not every stockpile is medical—and some are historical. This one dates back to the Civil War.

What was in the stockpile: In 1858, James Henry Hammond of South Carolina gave his famous "King Cotton" speech, arguing in part:

"What would happen if no cotton was furnished for three years?... England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her save the South. No, you dare not to make war on cotton. No power on the earth dares to make war upon it. Cotton is King."

The idea was that if southern American states stopped exporting cotton, England would be forced to intervene in the American Civil War, backing the Confederacy. Unfortunately for the Confederacy, the English had a stockpile of cotton.

What it was used for: Stabilizing the international cotton market during the American Civil War. Because cotton export volume had been so high in the 1850s, England and various European countries were sitting on comfy stockpiles of cotton. When the southern cotton growers stopped exports (and a Union blockade ultimately prevented them), the value of the cotton soared, and cotton production in India and Egypt was increased.

Where the stockpile was: England and various European countries.

4. Government Cheese

What was in the stockpile: In the 1980s the USDA found itself with an abundance of cheese and butter, purchased from US dairy producers who couldn't sell all of it on the open market. This practice of buying up surplus dairy products dated to the Great Depression, when it began as a way to maintain the dairy industry.

What it was used for: In December of 1981, President Reagan signed a measure that would release 30 million pounds from the cheese stockpile. In 1983, the Temporary Emergency Food Distribution Program was formed to distribute the cheese, in large unsliced blocks. This is where the term "Government Cheese" comes from—it was literally cheese given to the underprivileged to supplement their diets. There's even a ChowHound thread in which former eaters of Government Cheese reminisce about how good it was in grilled cheese sandwiches.

Where the stockpile was: Caves in Missouri. (Yes, really.) The New York Times reported that by 1983 the value of the national cheese-and-butter stockpile was over $4 billion.

5. The Diamond Stockpile

What's in the stockpile: Starting in the 1880s, Cecil Rhodes, then chairman of De Beers Consolidated Mines, bought up all the diamond mines he could. De Beers then proceeded to stockpile rough (uncut) diamonds.

What it's been used for: Convincing people that diamonds are more rare than they really are. While diamonds aren't going to turn up in your backyard, there are many diamond mines in the world. But the diamond industry has used stockpiling and limited releases to create artificial scarcity, which drives up prices. In 2000, De Beers reduced the size of its diamond stockpile (from an estimated $3.9 billion to $2.5 billion) after other companies began to dump diamonds in the market. Over a decade later, the stockpiling continued as various companies regulated the flow of diamonds in order to keep prices high.

Where the stockpile is: We don't know. A Washington Post article simply stated: "basement vaults," which sounds about right.

6. The U.N.'s Humanitarian Response Depots

What's in the stockpile: Five United Nations Humanitarian Response Depots (UNHRD) with emergency supplies for use in response to disasters. Managed by the World Food Programme (WFP), the depots contain all manner of food and survival gear. You can actually run a report to see what's currently in the stockpile.

What it's been used for: The depots deploy supplies frequently, as detailed in a series of weekly reports. In a memorable recent example, during Typhoon Haiyan, UNHRD shipped food and equipment to the Philippines. The WFP wrote, "In the first 24 hours, approximately 42 metric tons (mt) of High Energy Biscuits (HEBs) and emergency IT equipment were called forward to be packed up and ready for shipment from the Dubai facilities."

Where the stockpile is: There are six "strategically placed hubs" around the world, positioned near disaster-prone areas and near shipping facilities. The current hubs are located in Ghana, UAE, Malaysia, Panama, Spain, and Italy. They are designed to deliver supplies to disaster areas within 24 to 48 hours.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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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.