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Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh/Pittsburgh Poison Center

Mr. Yuk: The History of Poison’s Most Iconic Symbol

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Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh/Pittsburgh Poison Center

If you come from a certain part of the United States—and happened to grow up in the 1970s and '80s—you know Mr. Yuk's day-glo green face. For 43 years, this sticker has served as a defense against poisoning, warning kids that what's in that package isn't safe to eat. In honor of National Poison Prevention Week, here's a look back at the history of the iconic symbol. 

A Jolly Roger Problem

Mr. Yuk's story begins in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1970. Dr. Richard W. Moriarty, then a chief pediatric resident at the Children's Hospital, noticed that there were many calls about poisons coming to the emergency room, not to mention many needless visits, when parents should have been calling Poison Centers first. "Frantic parents were making mad dashes to emergency rooms when what they needed to do was to call a poison center, get the right information and, more than likely, sit tight," Moriarty told the Western Pennsylvania History journal.

Complicating matters was the fact that the Jolly Roger—a skull and crossbones that had traditionally been used to warn kids of poisonous substances—had been incorporated into the logo of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and appeared on everything from cereal boxes to gum labels. “Children are relating the danger symbol for poison with pleasant surroundings,” Moriarty, then director of the Pittsburgh Poison Center, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The confusion may even have led to an uptick in poisonings in the area.

What Pittsburgh needed was a symbol that did two things: It had to be unpleasant enough to get kids to pay attention, and informative enough to get parents to call Poison Centers. Those centers would not only offer advice to parents, but also inform the appropriate hospital of important clinical information if the child did, in fact, need to go to the ER.

From the Mouths of Babes

Moriarty and a team of experts—including Pittsburgh PR agency Vic Maitlan and Associates rep Dick Garber—led the charge. They began by conducting discussions with kids 5 and younger about poisons. "We asked what might happen to you if you put something bad into your mouth that could make you sick," Garber told Western Pennsylvania History. "They said,  1) their mother would yell at them, 2) they would die, and 3) they’d get sick.”

An artist drew the three potential new symbols: Mad, comprised of an angry face on a stop sign; death, a face based on the skull and crossbones, in black and white; and sick, a variation on the smiley face with an expression that instead invoked an upset stomach. The symbols were presented to the kids, who were asked to rank them according to which faces they liked best. The sick face almost always finished last.

The team also polled kids on the color of the sticker. After testing eight different colors, the team found that children were particularly put off by that day-glo fluorescent green. In fact, one kid, when he saw the sticker in that color, made a sour face and said, "He looks yucky."

And just like that, Mr. Yuk had a name. "The skull and crossbones was designed by adults for adults," Moriarty told the Post-Gazette. "Mr. Yuk is actually the first symbol specifically designed for kids." And by kids, too: The final logo was created by fourth grader Wendy Brown from West Virginia as part of a contest sponsored by the Pittsburgh Poison Center. With the addition of the local poison center's phone number in the black band surrounding his face, Mr. Yuk was finished.

Rolling Out Mr. Yuk

In 1971, Garber and Vic Maitland and Associates created a 60-second Mr. Yuk commercial on a tight budget. The sticker even got its own theme song (sample lyrics: “Mr. Yuk is mean / Mr. Yuk is green”) penned by writer Barbara Bolton:

By 1973, more than two million Mr. Yuk stickers had been distributed, according to the Post-Gazette, and in 1975, the Mr. Yuk commercial above aired during the Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Minnesota Vikings. By 1979, 50 million stickers were being distributed annually.

Though some studies have questioned the effectiveness of Mr. Yuk and other poison-awareness symbols, Edward P. Krenzelok, director of the Pittsburgh Poison Center, credits Mr. Yuk and the invention of child-proof caps with a sharp decline in cases of poisoning in Pittsburgh. "Up until the early 1970s, as many as three to five children in the Pittsburgh region were dying each year as a result of accidental poisonings," Krenzelok said in 2006. "Due in large part to poison prevention program Mr. Yuk has made famous and the development of child-resistant caps, there have been less than five accidental poisoning fatalities in Pittsburgh over the last 30 years."

There have been other popular poison symbols, from Officer Ugg to Uncle Barf, but none has been as enduring as Mr. Yuk; one federal study conducted in 2006 reported that three out of four Americans recognize the sticker. A variety of Yuk educational and promotional materials are still available today, and you can even get a free sheet by sending a self-addressed stamped envelope to:

Mr. Yuk
Pittsburgh Poison Center
200 Lothrop Street
PFG 01-01-01
Pittsburgh, PA 15213

For more on the history of Mr. Yuk, check out "Still Scary After All These Years: Mr. Yuk Nears 40" [PDF] from the Western Pennsylvania History journal.

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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]