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5 Fun Facts About Health, Toilets, Muppets, and Presidents

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YouTube / thelostdisney

We've been running a series about global health since August 2013. Here are five of the most interesting facts we've uncovered since then.

1. There is a "World Toilet Organization" Run By "Mr. Toilet"

Jack Sim goes by "Mr. Toilet." He left the business world to found the WTO—no, not that one, the World Toilet Organization—in 2001. Starting that year, Mr. Toilet declared November 19 "World Toilet Day," and since then has been on a mission to bring sanitation to people in developing countries.

I urge you to drop what you're doing and watch this short video about Mr. Toilet. Yes, he says "shit" a lot. And it's awesome.

In addition to founding the World Toilet Organization and establishing World Toilet Day, Mr. Toilet is working to convince the world to abandon flush toilets, because they waste water. Sim reminds us that flush toilets waste up to 22 liters of water every day. Something to think about next time you debate whether to "let it mellow."

Learn more in 5 Reasons World Toilet Day is Awesome.

2. The Seven Dwarfs Helped Fight Malaria

Disney made an animated film in 1943 called The Winged Scourge featuring the Seven Dwarfs. It was the first in a series of animated propaganda shorts dealing with public health issues, and the only to feature established Disney characters. I'll summarize this ten-minute video for you: mosquitoes transmit malaria, malaria is bad, so let's kill mosquitoes. With help from dwarves. (Snow White doesn't make an appearance.)

Note that around 0:45 in the video, we see that malaria is still established in the United States in the world map. Malaria wasn't eliminated in the U.S. until 1951.

Read more in 8 Surprising Facts About Malaria.

3. George Washington Had Tremendous Health Problems

"Life of George Washington—The Christian Death" by Junius Brutus Stearns, courtesy of the Library of Congress

George Washington is likely the founding father to have suffered from the widest variety of awful diseases, so let's review some of the worst things that happened to him. As a young man, Washington traveled to Barbados with his brother Lawrence in 1751, in an attempt to cure Lawrence of his TB with fresh air. The attempted cure failed, and George became infected with TB in the process. He also managed to pick up smallpox while in Barbados.

George Washington returned from Barbados only to come down with pleurisy, while his brother Lawrence died from TB. George also contracted malaria (see above), and later suffered from dysentery. He died at age 67 while being treated for a throat infection. The treatment involved bleeding him (32 ounces of blood removed—probably what actually killed him), making him gargle vinegar, inducing vomiting, and nearly suffocating him with a molasses/butter/vinegar potion.

Washington's struggle with disease was so epic that PBS produced an entire article describing and discussing his medical problems and how they might have been solved today. (They noted that he also suffered from diphtheria, quinsy, a carbuncle, pneumonia, and epiglottitis. Ouch. Oh yeah, and he lost his teeth to infection and decay, leaving him with just one remaining tooth upon inauguration as president. He lost that one too.)

Check our the history of presidential pain in 6 Awful Illnesses Suffered By US Presidents.

4. Cookie Monster Promotes Handwashing and Healthy Eating

In April 2013, Cookie Monster emphasized the importance of handwashing as part of an effort to promote sanitation work around the world. (2.5 billion people don't have access to toilets!) He granted an interview on the subject, conducted by the Impatient Optimists blog. Here's a snippet:

Impatient Optimists: We know you’re a cookie enthusiast. Can you tell us your cookie eating ritual?

Cookie Monster: Me cookie eating reputation precedes me. Of course me have ritual! First me wash hands. This part very important because it help keep me healthy. Me not sure exactly how long me wash, but me sing the ABCs slowly and when me get to Z, it time to rinse and then look out, om nom nom nom nom. Me also like to share me cookies with Elmo and Big Bird. Little known secret, a birdseed cookie is delicious.

Cookie Monster also famously sang in 2005 that "A Cookie is a Sometimes Food" in an effort to combat obesity. (In the song, various fruits are declared "anytime foods.") In this video, he struggles with the choice between fresh fruit and a delicious cookie:

Cookie Monster also tackled food issues with a 90s-style rap about healthy eating, complete with gold chains. "Nutrition, it really hip!" Me love it.

Read more in 13 Sesame Street Muppets That Make a Difference.

5. One Man Created Eight of the Most Common Vaccines

Image courtesy of Images from the History of Medicine

Although most people have never heard of him, Maurice Hilleman developed dozens of vaccines, including eight vaccines that you may have received. Hilleman developed vaccines for chickenpox, Haemophilus influenzae bacteria, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, measles, meningitis, mumps, and pneumonia (among many others). His vaccines saved millions of lives, and I've received a bunch of them myself! His obituary read, in part (emphasis added):

"Hilleman is one of the true giants of science, medicine and public health in the 20th century," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

"One can say without hyperbole that Maurice has changed the world," he added.

... "If I had to name a person who has done more for the benefit of human health, with less recognition than anyone else, it would be Maurice Hilleman," Gallo said six years ago. "Maurice should be recognized as the most successful vaccinologist in history."

His obituary is well worth a read, including colorful lines like: "'Montana blood runs very thick,' [Hilleman] said later, 'and chicken blood runs even thicker with me.'" (He grew up on a farm and worked with chickens quite a bit in developing vaccines.) His story is also told in the book Vaccinated: One Man's Quest to Defeat the World's Deadliest Diseases.

Read more in 5 Things You Might Not Know About Vaccines.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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