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A Brief and Bizarre History of the Baby Cage

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City apartments, as many people know, can be small and stuffy. And while fresh air is a wonderful, healthful thing for people of all ages, in the late 19th century, the idea of actively "airing" your baby to promote health started cropping up in parenting books.

The concept was introduced by Dr. Luther Emmett Holt who wrote about "airing" in his 1894 book The Care and Feeding of Children.

"Fresh air is required to renew and purify the blood, and this is just as necessary for health and growth as proper food," he wrote. "The appetite is improved, the digestion is better, the cheeks become red, and all signs of health are seen."

Essentially, the thinking was that this was part of a process to toughen up the babies, and make them better able to withstand common colds. It was believed that exposing infants to cold temperatures—both outside and through cold-water bathing—would grant them a certain immunity to catching minor illnesses. Holt responded to a series of hypothetical questions about his proposed methods, saying:

Is there not great danger of a young baby's taking cold when aired in this manner?

Not if the period is at first short and the baby accustomed to it gradually. Instead of rendering the child liable to take cold, it is the best means of preventing colds.

How should such an airing be given?

The child should be dressed with bonnet and light coat as if for the street and placed in its crib or carriage, which should stand a few feet from the window. All the windows are then thrown wide open, but the doors closed to prevent draughts. Screens are unnecessary.

What are the objections to an infant's sleeping out of doors?

There are no real objections. It is not true that infants take cold more easily when asleep than awake, while it is almost invariably the case that those who sleep out of doors are stronger children and less prone to take cold than others.

What can be done for children who take cold upon the slightest provocation?

They should be kept in cool rooms, especially when asleep. They should not wear such heavy clothing that they are in a perspiration much of the time. Every morning the body, particularly the chest and back, should be sponged with cold water (50° to 60° F).

Dr. Holt himself does not seem to have specifically suggested an outdoor baby cage, but the airing he advocated soon led parents without garden space to improvise.

In 1922, Emma Read of Spokane, Wash., applied for a patent [PDF] on a "portable baby cage." (Long before there were commercial options, Eleanor Roosevelt bought a chicken-wire cage in 1906 to hang out the window of her New York City townhouse on East 36th Street for her first child, Anna, to nap in—a practice for which her neighbors threatened to call the authorities on her.) In Read's application, which was granted the following year, she cited that "it is well known that a great many difficulties rise in raising and properly housing babies and small children in crowded cities, that is to say from the health viewpoint." The solution she proposed was as follows:

With these facts in view it is the purpose of the present invention to provide an article of manufacture for babies and young children, to be suspended upon the exterior of a building adjacent an open window, wherein the baby or young child may be placed. This article of manufacture comprises a housing or cage, wherein the baby or young child together with proper toys may be placed.

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A similar product makes an appearance in Louis Fischer's 1920 book The Health-Care of the Baby, which describes "a convenient outdoor sleeping compartment readily attached to any window," called the Boggins’ Window Crib. The wire device, 36" x 24" x 27", is described as being "admirably adapted for city apartments," with an insulated roof that will keep the baby cool enough to build up a cold-weather tolerance even in summer.

The Health-Care of the Baby via Google Books

Although patented in the early 1920s in the States, it wasn’t till the '30s that these cages took off—and in smog-filled London, of all places. The wire cages were attached to tenant buildings and distributed to members of the Chelsea Baby Club who lived in high buildings without garden space in which to air their babies.

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The fad proved to have some staying power, and in 1953, British Pathé produced this pun-filled promotional video espousing the benefits of baby cages.

It's not entirely clear when exactly the baby cage's popularity began to wane, but it likely had something to do with growing concerns for child safety in the second half of the 20th century. But if it still seems like a great idea to you, these days there are similar options for cats.

[h/t Apartment Therapy and Gothamist]

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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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Health
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.

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