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Penny Lane on Nuts!, Her Documentary About 'Goat Gland Doctor' John Brinkley

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According to his biography, the thing that made John Romulus Brinkley famous wasn’t even his idea. In The Life of a Man, Clement Wood writes that in 1917, Brinkley, a doctor running a drug store in Milford, Kansas, was talking to a farmer struggling with impotence when he jokingly referenced goats going at it nearby. “You wouldn’t have any trouble, if you had a pair of those buck glands in you,” he said.

“Well,” replied the farmer, “why don’t you put ‘em in? Why don’t you go ahead and put a pair of goat glands in me? Transplant ‘em, graft ‘em on, the way I’d graft a Pound Sweet on an apple stray.”

Brinkley balked at first, but eventually—after arguing with the farmer about it until 3 a.m.—he was persuaded to perform the surgery, for which he was paid $150. Within the next few months, he performed the operation several more times. Each time, according to The Life of a Man, the surgery worked. Impotence was cured. Babies were being conceived. 

By today's standards, of course, we know that this is pure bunk—Brinkley was clearly a quack. His xenotransplantation surgery could never have worked. But in the early 20th century, this fact was not so clear, and Brinkley’s renown—and his fortune—grew. Soon, the doctor was charging $750 per surgery, performing them by the thousands, and working with celebrity clientele. He was even mocked, on film, by Buster Keaton. Brinkley and his wife, Minnie, and their son, nicknamed Johnny Boy, lived like kings, first in Milford, then in Del Rio, Texas. During the Great Depression, while much of the nation struggled, Brinkley sold other cures at a rate of $100 a treatment, raking in $1 million a year.

As unbelievable as it may sound, a goat testicle–based cure for impotence was just the beginning for Brinkley. He was an early adopter of radio, pioneered the advertorial, and conducted a write-in campaign for the governorship of Kansas. And, of course, he had his fair share of enemies, including the Federal Radio Commission and the American Medical Association. But it was his own hubris, not his enemies, that would eventually bring Brinkley down.

When she first read about Brinkley in Pope Brock’s biography of the doctor, Charlatan, documentary director Penny Lane (Our Nixon) knew she had to turn the doctor’s incredible (and ultimately tragic) story into a movie. “I just immediately was taken by the story,” Lane tells mental_floss. “It seemed ready-made for a film.” Lane’s documentary about Brinkley, Nuts!, premieres at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Once she had decided to make a documentary about Brinkley’s life, Lane dove right into archival research. Using Brock’s sources in Charlatan as a starting point, “I just started flying around the country and going to these small county historical societies,” she says. “I actually found a number of just private individuals who were interested in John Brinkley and had their own personal collections that they’d collected on eBay over the years—photographs, his advertisements, brochures, and home movies.” Trial transcripts and contemporary newspaper articles also served as important sources.

Lane spent two years traveling to collect archival materials. One key piece she found was The Life of a Man. Wood, she says, “was a hack—he would write whatever you paid him to write.” Brinkley paid Wood to write The Life of a Man, then published it at his own publishing house in the 1930s; he gave copies away as promotional items. “The book is so crazy—it’s full of the most insane purple prose you’ve ever read,” Lane says. “It’s just over the top: Comparing Brinkley to Jesus, and Galileo. I was so taken with the tone of it—it just cracked me up.”

The book provided an artistic breakthrough: Lane knew she wanted it to be the center of her documentary. “It’s kind of the inspiration, because the book cloaks itself in a kind of authority,” she says. “It’s a biography, and you’re like, ‘OK, I know what biographies are. They do a bunch of research and they tell the truth.’ But it’s not a biography. It’s full of lies. The writer had no compunction about just making stuff up. I loved that! I was amazed at how you could look at something and think you know what it is, and not realize that you’re just being duped.” Parts of The Life of a Man are used as narration throughout Nuts!.

Other important archival finds included Brinkley’s home movies and transcription discs Brinkley had recorded. “I was lucky,” says Lane, because “it wasn’t common for radio operators to do that at the time.” (The discs were actually pre-recorded radio spots that Brinkley had created to get around Federal Radio Commission laws.) Still, she couldn’t use much of those discs: Brinkley’s recordings “must’ve been considered really seductive and convincing in the 1930s,” she says, “but if you listened to him on the radio now you’d be like, ‘This is not seductive and convincing. This is actually just creepy and weird.’ So I didn’t get to use very much of his radio stuff.”

Her best find was a 1922 film Brinkley had created called Rejuvenation Through Gland Transplantation. “It looks like a science film—it’s got illustrations of the human testicle, and it shows how the procedure works, and photos of some of the people that ended up having this procedure,” Lane says. “Of course it’s not a science film, it’s an ad they made to look like a science film, which is perfect.” The film was discovered, by chance, at the Library of Congress, where it was mislabeled. “No one really knows where it came from,” Lane says. “It really gave me the kind of material that you’d want for a film like this—you want to be able to show the cross section of the testicle and how it works. It was totally a score.”

With her materials assembled, Lane began to piece her documentary together—but because of how she wanted to approach it, she found herself in somewhat unfamiliar territory. “I had this risky idea, at the beginning, that I wanted to create this film in a way where I’m creating the maximum possible chance that a viewer could fall for Brinkley’s bullshit,” she says. “I wanted to be manipulative, and then I wanted to, obviously, unravel that in the film. But I thought, ‘Well, can I do that? Is it really possible to pull that off?’”

She had plenty of archival material to work with, though not as much as she'd had in her previous documentary, Our Nixon (which mental_floss discussed with the director at SXSW in 2013). “With Nixon, I had almost 4000 hours of candid audio tape, and it really made it possible for me to construct actual characters,” she says. “With Brinkley, I had enough stuff to do a film that was chock full of awesome archival material of all kinds, but I didn't have any candid audio, so it was much harder to figure out how to make him a character.”

What she needed, Lane realized, was a script—not something a documentarian normally has to think about. “For Brinkley to be seductive and feel real, I needed to script him and create scenes from his life,” she says. So she brought in writer Thom Stylinski, who helped to craft the narration and penned reenactment scenes that were later animated. “I’m not sure I would’ve had the confidence even to do it without him,” she says. “I was like, ‘How do you write a script? I don’t even know.’ It was just really outside the realm of what I had done before.” The animation for each chapter of Brinkley's life was created by a different company and was partially funded on Kickstarter.

It took eight years for Lane to craft Nuts!, which follows Brinkley’s life from his humble beginnings in Milford to the openings of Brinkley hospitals in several states and the creation of “Formula 1020,” which Brinkley claimed was a distillation of goat glands that would cure everything from impotence to insanity. Lane says the most fascinating and outrageous thing about Brinkley was his ability to stay one step ahead of the people who wanted to bring him down. “It was this fun cat and mouse game,” she says. “Watch people try to stop him, and then watch him outsmart them, over and over again. Con men—we just love those characters. Even if you know they’re the bad guy, it’s really fun to watch the one who just keeps winning ... You can’t help it. It’s very appealing.”

The prime example was when authorities shut down Brinkley’s powerful and popular 5000-watt Kansas radio tower. “He was like, ‘Well, no problem. I’m going to go to Mexico, and I’m going to build a new radio station. It’s not going to be 5000 watts, it’s going to be a million watts, and you’re really going to regret ever having shut down my radio station in Kansas,’” Lane says. “I think that was the most amazing move of his entire career. It was brilliant.”

But it all came tumbling down when Brinkley sued the American Medical Association’s Morris Fishbein for libel in 1939. (In “Modern Medical Charlatans,” a two-part article published in Hygeia, a magazine from the American Medical Association, Fishbein had written, among other things, that “In John R. Brinkley, quackery reaches its apotheosis.”) Once Brinkley was in court and on the stand, he was exposed as a fraud—he wasn’t even a real doctor (he had received his degree from a diploma mill).

In short order, Brinkley was sued by former patients for malpractice and investigated by the IRS for tax fraud. By 1941, he had declared bankruptcy. Soon after that, he was investigated for mail fraud. He died of heart failure in 1942, leaving his wife (who supported his claims that the goat gland surgery was legit until she died) and his son penniless.

“It’s a really tragic story—ultimately, a very American tragedy: These complicated characters who are geniuses, who are born with nothing, on the outskirts of society, apply themselves and become very successful and famous, and then go down really badly, in a way because of their own hubris," Lane says. "If he hadn’t sued the AMA for libel, Brinkley probably could’ve just kept going—but he actually dragged himself into court, and that’s what destroyed his credibility and his career.”

Still, despite his misdeeds, it’s hard not to feel bad for Brinkley. “He’s not just the stock villain—I think he’s an interesting, real human being,” Lane says. “But at the end of the day, it’s just irrefutable that he was a con man. A lot of people love him because he did a lot of charity, and that's great. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that he was a con man.”

Nuts! premieres at Sundance tonight. Click here to find out when and where it’s playing at the festival.

All images courtesy of Nuts!.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]