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How the Global Bird-Poop Trade Created a Traveling Mummy Craze

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Mummy of Christopher Delano; image from the 1864 French translation of the 1854 A Descriptive Narrative of the Wonderful Petrifaction of a Man into Stone. Image Credit: Courtesy of Garrett Scott

Bird poop has been a favored fertilizer for centuries—and, it turns out, is an excellent preserver of human flesh. These two factors came together in the 19th century as the global trade in guano, the excrement of seabirds (or bats), took off, leading to some unexpected travelers coming along for the ride—and raking in the cash.

Guano contains essential nutrients for plant growth and naturally accumulates near nesting areas. Its Miracle-Gro properties were prized and regulated by the Incas (the word wanu is Quechua in origin), but it wasn’t until 1802 that the European world learned of this resource through the writings of Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who traveled extensively along the west coast of South America.

By the 1840s, Europe and the U.S. were importing guano for fertilizer. When it was discovered the poop could also make gunpowder, a veritable guano mania began. Guano was soon going for about $76 per ton, and the U.S. imported over 100,000 tons of it in 1861 [PDF]. That's about $250 million in today’s dollars.

In the race to control the world’s guano deposits and secure bird poo futures for its people, the U.S. created the Guano Islands Act in 1856, allowing any U.S. citizen to claim guano-covered islands. Control over guano resources became part of the justification for the Chincha Islands War (1864–1866) between Spain and Peru and Chile, as well as for the War of the Pacific (1879–1883), in which Chile stole Peru’s guano.

In the midst of this fervor for feces, guano miners were hard at work chipping away at the hardened mounds of poo on islands in the Pacific, Caribbean, and Atlantic. Strangely, on some of these islands, among the guano they also found mummified humans.

The most well-known guano mummy is that of Christopher Delano. On the island of Ichaboe, a teeny speck of land off Namibia, a crew of guano miners found a canvas hammock containing a human body under about 6 feet of guano, with a wooden plaque saying “Christopher Delano, 1721.” A cheery pamphlet from 1854 describes his mummified corpse and its travels: “But for the hair and teeth, which were quite perfect, [it] appeared a mass resembling stone, all the natural and component parts, of the body being changed by the process of petrifaction … [and] composed chiefly of lime and ammonia.”

In spite of the quite scientific understanding at the time of both natural and artificial mummification (thanks to early interest in ancient Egypt), even with the knowledge of the formation of adipocere, or “grave wax,” on recently interred corpses, the perception of what guano could do appears to have been wrong. Delano was not “changed into a mass of lime and ammonia.” We know now that in the short term, guano can help seal dead bodies, creating an oxygen-poor and salt-rich environment that is good for preservation. In a warm, arid climate like Namibia, the guano helped dry Delano’s body and shield it from scavengers.

Captain Wethers, who commanded the crew, brought the mummy from Ichaboe to Liverpool, where it traveled to the British Museum. From there, poor Delano went on a tour of Great Britain and Ireland, where he brought in more than $150,000—the equivalent of about $4 million today.

Upon examination of Delano, British and French scientists determined that he was European and not African, and the amount of wear on his teeth suggested he was in his mid to late 30s when he died. His right shoulder is elevated and contracted, and his open mouth revealed “a death of agony” (though it's not unusual to see a gaping jaw on a mummy). His cause of death? Likely a spear wound to his right shoulder.

The writer of the 1854 pamphlet took liberties with the sparse facts available: “About 1721, the Island of Ichaboe had been the resort of nests of Pirates…. In all human probability, the most satisfactory conjecture that can be arrived at is that the unfortunate Christopher Delano was a Spaniard, joined in some piratical enterprises, and leagued with a gang of desperadoes, from one of whom, while visiting the Island of Ichaboe, he most probably received his death wound in some bacchanalism origies [sic] or sudden quarrel.”

With this amazing manufactured backstory, Delano’s body was brought to Philadelphia and exhibited before being shipped to France by the mid-1860s. Although billed as the “only one in the world” and “the solitary known example in the Universe of its kind,” it was only a matter of time—and feverish digging—before more mummies preserved by bird poop materialized. Just a few years after Delano was discovered, the British ship Octavia also docked in Liverpool with a load of guano—and the mummies of a man, woman, and child from Peru [PDF]. Like Delano, they were eventually exhibited at the British Museum in London.

In 1868, British natural historian Francis Buckland noted that he saw yet another guano mummy in a “penny show” in Edinburgh; according to the show's handbill, the body was brought from Possession Island off the west coast of Africa by Captain Dunlop’s ship Echo. The mummy was well preserved, with an oaken board that was carved “Peter Creed, 1790.” Buckland spoke with the owner, who reportedly announced that the mummy “is as good as a pension to me,” earning him today’s equivalent of $2000 in under two weeks. The owner was aware of the Delano corpse, which at that point he claimed had disintegrated due to its travels, but mused “he ain’t no use as a scientific mummy now; the more’s the luck for me as long as my Peter Creed holds together.” (Given England’s humidity, though, it is doubtful that his Mr. Creed survived for very long.)

By the early 20th century, the guano trade had tapered off. Industrialized countries found new sources of fertilizer, and it turns out that guano was not a very good source of saltpeter for gunpowder. Many islands and atolls had been completely stripped, but the legacy remains: Many remain in U.S. possession after being claimed for their guano 150 years ago. Seven of these make up the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, the world’s largest marine reserve. As for the islands that produced Delano and Creed, these today support Cape gannets and endangered African penguins, and wildlife conservationists still often visit to monitor these populations.

While guano mummies are occasionally discovered in these areas, today new finds are largely made by archaeologists excavating prehistoric caves sites in arid locations like Nevada, New Mexico, and Durango, Mexico. Still, with the popularity of bat guano as an organic fertilizer on the rise today, it’s likely more poop-preserved mummies may yet turn up.

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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]