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15 Shimmering Questions About Glitter, Answered

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Everyone has feelings about glitter. Unicorns bathe in the stuff. Six year olds dream about it. It’s essential to Pride parades, a weapon of social disruption and foremost in a pop star’s make-up arsenal. It’s also the stuff of cleaning nightmares. But where does glitter come from? Why does it exist? And how in the name of all that is good can you get it off the upholstery?


Culturally, of course, we love shiny things, perhaps because they are associated with wealth and status: flashy cars, blinged out accessories, even solid gold toilets. But the roots of our attraction to All Things Sparkly goes deeper. Anthropologists have noted that many hunter-gatherer tribes equated shiny things with spiritual powers. Prehistoric man also had a habit of polishing his bone tools. But it seems to be more than just an “ooh, pretty,” phenomenon. Babies, after all, can’t tell a diamond-coated Rolex from a Timex, but new research shows that kids favor putting shiny objects into their mouths over matte materials. And it turns out, there’s an evolutionary reason for that.

According to researchers from the University of Houston and Ghent University in Belgium, our impulse for shiny things comes from an instinct to seek out water. The theory is that our need to stay hydrated has kept mankind on the lookout for shimmering rivers and streams. And thanks to natural selection, that’s left us with an innate preference for things that sparkle. 


For those who couldn’t get their mitts on gold, silver, or precious jewels, mica has been a saving grace. These naturally occurring sheets of silicate-forming minerals have been used to bedazzle objects ever since the Paleolithic era. Mayans, for example, chipped and mixed the stuff into pigments and slapped it onto 6th-century temples. Even today, you can find mica in luster paints. 

But mica was hardly the only option. Pyrite was used in Paleolithic cave paintings to produce a muted shimmer. Ancient Egyptians slipped ground green malachite, a copper carbonate with an iridescent effect, into their cosmetics, and there was also galena, a silvery mineral used in early eyeliners. 

By the 19th century, however, glitter was most often made from powdered or ground glass. It came in any color that glass came in and was often marketed under the name “diamantine.” As an 1896 article syndicated from The New York Sun explained, the ornamental effect was achieved by coating fabric in glue and rolling it in glass powder. Which sounds somewhat glamorous, but more dangerous. 


Glitter as we know it today wasn’t invented until 1934. According to glitter lore, New Jersey machinist Henry Ruschmann accidentally invented the stuff after he took a load of scrap metals and plastics and ground it up very fine. Some reports claim that his invention took off during World War II, when American access to Germany’s glittering diamantine was cut off. While the origin story is murky, Ruschmann is a strong candidate: He did file for four separate patents for inventions related to cutting up strips of foil or film. And though he died in 1989, his company Meadowbrook Inventions is still in the glitter business today, peddling more than 20,000 different kinds of glitter. 


While cosmetics and crafts seemed to be the obvious uses, inventors also dabbled with the sparkling substance. The U.S. Air Force briefly tried spraying what amounted to glitter—they called it chaff”—from the back of warplanes. The idea was to create a cloud of false echoes to throw off enemy radar, making it virtually impossible for the enemy to determine the real target from a fake. The UK also used something similar in “Operation Window,” where planes released strips of aluminum-coated paper at timed intervals, swamping German radar screens with false signals. But the armed forces aren’t the only group to take advantage of glitter’s shimmering qualities: A significant number of glitter patents have also been filed for fishing lures. Fish, like humans, like shiny things.


The making of glitter is fairly banal. Color is applied to a copolymer sheet, then a layer of reflective material, such as aluminum foil, is placed on top of that. Then, the now-fused film is run through a rotary cutter—“a combination of a paper shredder and a wood chipper,” according to a glitter maker on a Reddit thread—resulting in precision-cut pieces of uniform size. That size varies according to the need of the customer; Meadowbrook offers a teeny, tiny, microscopic .002-inch-by-.002-inch glitter, typically used in cosmetics or aerosol sprays. And while the shapes are most often hexagonal, they can be nearly anything you want: square, butterfly, stars, hearts. How much glitter these machines can produce in an hour is dependent on size, shape, and yield.


You can’t. Glitter sticks to stuff because of the static electricity generated between its small particles of metal or plastic and virtually every surface known to man or beast. Getting it off is often an exercise in futility and frustration. But if moving away isn’t an option, Real Simple says all is not lost. For tiled or hardwood floors, you can aggressively vacuum up drifts with the crevice attachment. For fabric surfaces, such as couches and other upholstery, a lint roller works best. Meanwhile, you can use a rubber-gloved hand to loosen glitter stuck in carpet and then attack with the vacuum’s upholstery brush. For your keyboard, try loosening the glitter with a shot of compressed air. Just be prepared: This is a war you will not win. There will always be a bit of sparkle somewhere.


If the glitter is on your person, you can unstick it with oil on a cotton ball. Beyonce’s make-up artist, who has coated the flawless star in craft glitter at least twice, says Scotch tape is another great way to remove it (although she still spots the lingering glitter in her make-up kit). 

If you’ve ever used glitter nail polish, you’re probably aware that it requires a chisel to remove. Pro-tip, via Glamour: You can use either a cotton ball soaked in acetone and secured around your fingertips with aluminum foil for as long as it takes to remove the stuff, or try a felt pad soaked in nail polish remover; evidently, the felt is rougher and more durable than just regular cotton. 


No. And that’s a problem for the environment. 

Remember in 2014, when microbeads, those tiny, supposedly exfoliating beads that come in face washes, came under fire? The beads, made of plastic, are too small to be filtered out by water treatment plants, so they end up in lakes and rivers where they are eaten by unsuspecting fish. Eventually, environmentalists called for bans and several companies stopped using them. Glitter is similar. When it ends up in waterways and oceanic environments, it’s often mistaken for prey by marine life and ingested.

But since people still want sparkle, companies are working on ways to satisfy that need without harming the environment. Ronald Britton, a UK-based glitter manufacturer, has come up with Bio-Glitter, a certified compostable, biodegradable glitter that won’t clog waterways or harm marine life. Manufacturers on the consumption end, such as distinctively-scented soaps company Lush, have started using biodegradable glitter made from synthetic mica in their bath products. And if you’re feeling a bit uncomfortable about all the fish your glitter habit has probably murdered, rest easy knowing that going forward, you can make your own non-toxic, animal-safe glitter using food coloring and salt.  


Though eating glitter is ill-advised, most commercially available glitter is non-toxic and won’t hurt you in small amounts. Or, and this is rather more likely, it won’t hurt the small child in your care who has been gleefully shoveling orange glitter into his mouth. The major exception is glass glitter, which is used by hardcore crafters for a vintage sparkle and would be very bad if consumed; if you’ve swallowed glass glitter, go directly to the hospital. 

There is glitter that you are allowed to eat, but this glitter comes with its own warnings and can be confusing. Some shops sell “edible glitter,” which is typically made from colored sugar or gum arabic. There’s also glitter that can touch food but isn’t meant to be eaten. And you can find glitter that’s only intended to be on removable decorations (think princess cake toppers). Just make sure you read the labels, or you know—sparkle poo. 


Forensic pathologists love the stuff. They’ve been mounting a case for glitter’s usefulness since 1987, explaining that glitter’s steadfast adherence to persons and clothing make it “near perfect” as trace evidence. In fact, it’s been a star witness in several court cases. In 1987, for example, a Fairbanks, Alaska man, Michael Alexander, was convicted of the abduction and murder of 15-year-old Kathy Stockholm after glitter found on her body was linked to glitter found in his car and homes


It’s difficult to say. Wikipedia claims that between 1989 and 2009, more than 10 million pounds of glitter were purchased, but at first blush, this fact seems suspicious. Since individual companies are hesitant to release sales and output figures, we’re left with anecdote and extrapolation: The Toronto Santa Claus Parade used nearly 155 pounds of glitter in 2011. If 200 cities and towns each bought that much for their celebrations, that would be around 31,000 pounds for one holiday event alone.

So given that, and coupled with the fact that, according to Vanity Fair, pop star Ke$ha spends thousands of dollars a month on glitter alone, 10 million pounds may be a fair estimate.


Well, yes. Glitter bombing first became a thing in 2011, when Nick Espinosa, a gay rights activist, dumped a Cheez-Its box full of glitter all over erstwhile presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and his wife. “Feel the rainbow, Newt!” he shouted, as multicolored sparkles enveloped Gingrich’s head. From then on, it was open season on what was billed as a non-violent yet effective form of protest: Most targets were conservatives, and most bombers were gay or women’s rights activists. But while glitter-bombing is more annoying than it is threatening, authorities took a dim view of the protest: In 2012, a Denver college student who tried to nail Mitt Romney with a fistful of blue glitter pleaded guilty to disturbing the peace; he only narrowly avoided being charged with a more serious crime of throwing a missile. And naturally, the people who were glittered were fuming: Mike Huckabee demanded glitter-bombers be arrested while Gingrich called his glitter-bombing “assault.”

Though “assault” seems a bit harsh, is glitter-bombing safe? Every year around the holidays, ophthalmologists warn that glitter can get into the eye and scratch the cornea; it’s also not terribly pleasant to inhale glitter.


Clearly, there’s a market for glitter pranks. In January 2015, Matthew Carpenter, an Australian 20-something, started a website called Ship Your Enemies Glitter, which soon garnered headlines across the globe. After orders poured in and he found he couldn’t keep up with demand, Carpenter sold the business for about 85,000 Australian dollars. But glitterbugs can go overboard, too. In October of this year, an Akron, Ohio woman was found guilty of fifth-degree felony vandalism after she glitter-bombed her former supervisor’s office. When Samantha Lockhart, 25, resigned from her job at the Summit County Fiscal Office in January 2015, she spent her last day “decorating” her boss’s office with toilet paper, silly string, and fistfuls of multi-colored glitter. The glitter, which piled up in sparkly drifts about the office like evil festive snow, damaged office computers. She was recently sentenced to 18 months probation and a fine of $1000.


In recent years, prison authorities have seen an uptick in people smuggling drugs, particularly Suboxone, into prison using glitter glue and crayons. How? Suboxone, which is used to treat the symptoms of withdrawal from opiate addiction but is also a powerful drug, can be made into a paste. That paste is then applied to paper, dried, and covered with something bright and distracting like crayon scribbles or glitter glue. Inmates lick the drug right off the page. Today, any letters containing glitter glue or crayon markings are immediately pulled out and destroyed (which seems terribly sad, given that crayon and glitter are the preferred mediums of small children).


Though glitter had been around for ages, you couldn’t really get away with wearing it out in public until the late ‘60s. Mod culture, Iggy Pop—who used to coat his body with peanut butter on stage before discovering glitter was better—David Bowie’s surreal turn as Ziggy Stardust, disco, and glam-rock all helped the stuff go mainstream. Sparkle, whether on shoes or eyelids, was in.

By 1984, Clairol had noticed. The company filed for a patent for glitter hair mousse—specifically, the “process for imparting temporary high fashion ‘glitter’ to hair”—and though this wasn’t the first or only way to apply glitter to your head, the game was changed. By the 1990s, body glitter was being sold at fine tweenager emporiums everywhere. (This patent, filed in 1997, is not the first for body glitter, but it does have this fantastic drawing to accompany it.) Glitter fever died down by the end of the decade. Or, at least, teenagers were no longer bathing in it before a night out. But that doesn’t mean that our love affair with glitter in all its sparkly forms is over: after all, we’re hardwired to love a bit of shimmer.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]