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Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

5 Things We Learned from The Knick's Medical Advisor

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Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

Dr. Stanley Burns is the medical advisor for The Knick, a medical drama starring Clive Owen and directed by Steven Soderbergh. We have a lengthy interview with Dr. Burns; here are five highlights.

1. His Million-Photo Collection is Mostly Organized in His Head

When I asked how Dr. Burns keeps his collection organized, his answer surprised me:

Dr. Burns: It's in my head. [E]very time we do a book, then that subject gets organized, it gets scanned, it gets numbered, labeled. So that as far as [the upcoming book] Stiffs, Skulls & Skeletons is concerned, the book will have 450 photographs, but in order to produce that we've scanned about somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 images from which we edit it down.

2. Clive Owen Could Suture You Up

Dr. Burns taught the cast basic medical procedures so they could do a convincing job on-camera...and the actors feel quite confident about their skills.

Dr. Burns: [The actors said], "Well, if I came across an accident or if I had to suture someone up now, I know how to do it." And this was a general comment right across the board and it is something great to learn, how to be able to put stitches in and take stitches and do all that.

Dr. Burns added, "I'd let Clive suture me up."

3. Doctors Became Addicts Via Self-Experimentation

Discussing the various drug addictions depicted in the show, Dr. Burns explained that these addictions sometimes came about because doctors were doing their jobs.

Dr. Burns: [Addictions were] common, but not for the reasons that you think. It was common because this was an era when doctors experimented on themselves. [...] I always talk about the great neurologist Henry Head, who cut his own nerves, and of course he would have a permanent defect afterwards, to find out what innervation was and what it was like. ... [Doctors] practiced on themselves and they didn't know the side effects of all these drugs.

4. Pioneers of the X-Ray Lost Fingers

Asked about the dangers presented by early X-ray machines shown on The Knick, Dr. Burns told me a rather grim story.

Dr. Burns: How dangerous? [...] Edison, who of course was a great electrical scientist of the era, because you need electricity to run the machine, recognized that his hands were getting red, I think, so he had his assistant [Clarence] Dally doing all the X-rays and the fluoroscopies, and Dally was dead by 1904. I think he had only been working on it for about seven or eight years and what happens is the doctor's fingers were falling off, they were getting squamous cell carcinoma, and a whole bunch of other carcinomas from exposure to the X-ray.

5. Today's Medical Practices May Look Foolish in 100 Years

Closing out our interview, Dr. Burns gives some perspective on technological advances in medicine.

Dr. Burns: One of the statements I say to everyone I meet, just so you get the correct idea about these doctors, is that these doctors from 1900 and the doctors from 1700 and 1800 are just as smart as you and I, just as innovative, just as genius. The problem is they labored under inferior knowledge in technology and all they tried to do was help and heal. They did the best they could, but the advance of medicine and technology is so great that a hundred years later a lot of the stuff looks foolish and you're wondering why a patient would put up with it. And what we're doing today will be looked at, I'm sure, a hundred years from now the same way.

Read the Rest

We have a full interview with Dr. Burns touching on the medical aspects of his work with The Knick. The show airs Fridays at 10pm on Cinemax.

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]